Frank Schwelb (born František Schwelb), 1932
Frank Schwelb was born in Prague in 1932. He and his parents, Caroline and Egon, lived in the center of Prague, and Frank remembers the Nazi troops marching through the city. Caroline was a language teacher and translator, and Egon worked as an attorney. In March 1939, shortly after the German occupation, Egon was arrested and sent to Pankrác prison. Frank says that his father’s clients included German anti-Nazi refugees living in Prague and believes that this, along with his Jewish background, led to his arrest. He was released after two months. Following his release, they were able to secure exit visas, and, in August 1939, took a train through Germany and the Netherlands where they boarded a ship to England. Frank says that most of his family who were unable to leave the country, including his mother’s sister, died in concentration camps.
Frank’s family settled in London where he attended several different schools, including the Czechoslovak State School of Great Britain in Wales; he maintains contact with many of his classmates from there. His father became a member of the legal counsel of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile and served in that capacity from 1940 to 1945. Frank says that his parents initially hoped to return to Czechoslovakia following WWII; however, because of his job, his father understood that the country would likely fall under communist rule and decided not to go back. In 1947, Egon was offered the position of the Deputy Director of the UN Human Rights Division; the family moved to New York City to join him several months after he accepted the post. Frank attended Yale University where he played soccer and joined the NAACP. He began Harvard Law School in 1954, but volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army in 1955 to gain military naturalization. He served for two years before returning to Harvard and graduating in 1958. Eager to participate in President John F. Kennedy’s “New Frontier,” Frank began working as a lawyer for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice in October 1962; his work with voter registration discrimination exposed him to the segregated South. He was named to the Superior Court of the District of Columbia by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, and was later appointed (by President Reagan) to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, where he served as a Senior Judge.
Frank enjoyed speaking Czech whenever he got the chance, rooted for Slavia Praha (a Czech soccer team) and returned to the Czech Republic many times. He was involved in the Czech and Slovak legal community, meeting with visiting lawyers, judges, and students, and he presented the inaugural Rosa Parks Memorial Lecture (in Czech) at Charles University in Prague. Frank lived with his wife, Taffy, in Washington, D.C., until his death in 2014.
Frank’s father was arrested in 1939
“This Gestapo guy came and arrested him, and he said to him – my father’s blonde, my mother was dark-haired, but my dad was blonde – and he said to him, ‘You can’t be Jewish.’ And my father said, ‘Yes I am.’ And oddly enough, and this is just one of those crazy things because I’m not one to find redeeming features about Nazis, but apparently, this man developed some sort of respect for my father because of what he said. So then my mother told me many years after the fact, she told me she would go daily up to Pankrác prison to see if she could see him or bring him something or something like that, and I don’t know to what extent she got to see him, but she was talking to the Gestapo guy one time and she said, ‘Would it be possible for me to bring my husband some clothes?’ And as she told it, and my mother was a bit of a raconteur, but as she told it, the man said something like this: ‘Clothes? What are you thinking? You think this is a hotel? I’ve never heard of such a thing! Clothes? If you come tomorrow at 3:00 in the afternoon, I’ll see what I can do for you.’ So apparently there was some little bit of humanity in this guy. And that’s always a story I’ve remembered.”
Frank discusses the importance of his Czech background
“I didn’t want anybody to think I was any German-speaking Czechoslovak. Probably more than anybody else I know, I felt that way. It’s kind of strange, because many of the German-speaking Czechoslovaks were Jewish and certainly were not Nazis, but I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I didn’t want anything to do with it, I wanted to be a Czech Czech. Czechoslovak Czechoslovak. Many of my friends came from German-speaking families, and probably objectively, many people would say I come from a German-speaking family, but I wanted to be a Czechoslovak Czech and that remains. A lot of people with a similar background to mine identify with Israel more than with Czechoslovakia, now it never occurred to me that I was more Israeli than Czechoslovak; I was always more Czechoslovak than Israeli.”
Frank’s family decided not to return to Czechoslovakia after the War
“He made it clear to me that he didn’t want me to grow up in an undemocratic country. That one of the reasons was he didn’t want me to grow up in an undemocratic country. My parents were social democrats and all that. The liberties of the citizen were terribly important to them, as they are to me, which generated the career I chose in this country, and so I was very disappointed [that his family ultimately did not return to Czechoslovakia]. Now my father did go back for a visit, either in late 1945 or early 1946, and he came back desolated, sort of, that it wasn’t the same. There was a strong revenge feeling in Czechoslovakia against the Sudeten Germans, and it’s understandable because many of the Sudeten Germans followed Henlein and Hitler, and the so-called Beneš Decrees removed them collectively, took their homes and removed them collectively. And my father, who had served in President Beneš’ cabinet and who was certainly not sympathetic to Henlein and the Nazis and all that, he said that you cannot have a legal democratic state if you have collective punishment of a group of people without distinguishing individual guilt from individual innocence. And the fact that this was done made him even more distrustful of the possibility of democracy.”
Frank talks about his reaction to the Communist coup in 1948
“You know, it was such a terrible thing to happen to my country. I’d always grown up with a memory of the Nazis coming in and killing part of my family and all that, and then we were so looking forward to a peaceful, democratic world after the War was going to be over and we weren’t going to have any, ‘There’ll be bluebirds over/The white cliffs of Dover/Tomorrow just you wait and see/There’ll be love and laughter/And peace ever after/Tomorrow when the world is free’ and what do you get. You get a dictatorial one-party regime coming after two and a half years of quasi-democracy. So I was very devastated as a boy.”
Franks recalls traveling through Mississippi in 1962
“I was driving along the street and I saw a woman; I was looking for the Harmony community in Free Trade, Mississippi. I saw this woman picking cotton in a cotton field, which is something new to me anyway, but I wanted some directions so I walked up to her and I said, ‘Excuse me, but I wonder if you could tell me how to find…’ and I gave her the address, and she pointed out and whatnot. And I thought, ‘What the heck.’ So I said, ‘Ma’am,’ and I don’t think anybody had ever called her ma’am before, but I said ‘Have you ever tried to register to vote?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Vote! You isn’t from around here, is you? Vote! Why we can’t vote. That man over there, the owner, he’d skin me alive. My skin is black, and I know my place. Vote! We can’t vote.’ And sort of retreated into the distance. She also mentioned something about a guy being chased; something about a black guy being chased down the street in Carthage by a white gang, and that’s what she said. This was the free world, the lead country in the free world in December of 1962.”
Frank answers the question, ‘What does freedom mean?’
“Oh boy. Well, first of all, I was more concerned in those days as to what it doesn’t mean. And what I’ve told you about Czechoslovakia, it doesn’t mean the Nazis coming in and locking up my father for representing people or for being Jewish. It doesn’t mean the communists coming in there and hanging Mr. Clementis and so on. It doesn’t mean having one party ruling. And it doesn’t mean subjugating people on account of their race or color.”
Category: Oral History