Judge Frank E. Schwelb of the D.C. Court of Appeals (the equivalent of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia) recently passed away. Advocates like Elaine Mittleman who argued cases before Judge Schwelb say that he was “wicked smart . . . with a wry sense of humor.” Elaine also noted that “When I thought again of him, I saw some similarities with . . . Chief Judge Kozinski.” Judge Schwelb was a Czech by birth*, and Judge Kozinski is a Romanian by birth. Brilliant, brilliant men.
We should mourn the passing of this interesting man who came to this country (and Yale and Harvard) as a young child chased out of his homeland with his parents by the Nazis. His is a story of how immigrants have enriched, and continue to enrich, our society and the legal profession in particular. Rest easily Judge Schwelb. See his Washington Post obituary here.
While I am sure that his father was proud of Judge Schwelb, that pride was reciprocated by the son for his father. And, it is that story–the story of Dr. Egon Schwelb–that I wish to highlight today. Sometime around 2006, Judge Schwelb gave a fascinating account of his father to the Czechoslovak Government in Exile Research Society. See here.
Told in the Judge’s own words, here is the story of Dr. Egon Schwelb:
- My father, Dr. Egon Schwelb, was a prominent Social Democratic attorney who handled a lot of what might now be termed civil liberties cases, and who represented, among other clients, anti-Nazi German refugees who fled to Prague after Hitler and the Nazis came to power in Germany. On March 15, 1939, German troops goose-stepped into Prague — I still have some slight memory of that — and on the following day my dad was taken into custody and held at the Pankrac prison.
- In May, 1939, my father was released, though I have never been able to find out exactly why. My parents were able to obtain British visas and an exit permit, and on August 12, 1939, we travelled by train from Prague through Nazi Germany to Holland. I know that my parents were afraid that we might be taken off the train before we crossed the Dutch border, for events were not very predictable at that time, but cross we did. We travelled in a Dutch ship from the Hook of Holland to Harwich, arriving in Britain on August 13, 1939. The war, as you know, began on September 1, when the Nazis invaded Poland, so we made it by less that three weeks. Those members of our family who did not manage to leave the country, including my mother’s younger sister, perished in the Holocaust. My parents were both of Jewish origin, though not practicing Jews.
- We spent the first few weeks of our stay in Britain in refugee hostels in Surrey. In late 1939 or early 1940, my parents obtained a flat in Mill Hill, in the northwestern part of London. We were in London during the Blitz, and I collected shrapnel splinters after air raids. Eventually, President Benes named my father to the Legal Council (Pravni Rada) of the government-in-exile. My dad served in that capacity until the end of the war. During his service as a legal adviser to the Benes government, my father sensed that postwar Czechoslovakia would not be a democratic country for very long, and (much to my dismay at the time) my parents decided not to go back.
- After serving in the United Nations War Crimes Commission from 1945 to 1947, my father was named Deputy Director of the Human Rights Division of the U.N. in 1947.
- Our family came to the United States in 1947, and lived here ever since. My dad had a very distinguished career and earned the nickname Mr. Human Rights. In 1979, shortly after his death, he posthumously received the Dag Hammarskjold Award for his contributions to peace and human rights. He died just a few months before I was named by President Carter to my first judgeship.
Like the German Judge Lothar Kreyssig, the Czech lawyer, Dr. Egon Schwelb, was a hero too. Our profession should be proud to count these men among us. We can only hope to emulate them in some small measure. But try we must.
*In the “small world department,” my son-in-law Karel holds dual Czech and Canadian citizenship and speaks Czech fluently. With daughter Lisa and their children, Karel teaches in China. Keller’s wife Stacey, residing with Keller and Fletcher in Australia, is also of Czech origin. Her maiden name is the same as Karel’s last name. My late wife and I lived in Wilbur, Nebraska when I attended law school. Wilbur is the “Czech Capital” of Nebraska. We lived in that small community so that my late wife could teach high school French to the Czech kids. By the way, if you have not tasted Kolach, a Czech pastry, you have missed one of the essential joys of life.