Vol. 32, No. 7
Six of the Greatest
by Phil Alterman
by Phil Alterman
Phil Alterman is an immigration lawyer with the firm Carter & Alterman. He wishes to thank Esther Rose, George Carter’s daughter, for her assistance in researching this article.
George Carter and I were law partners, although we practiced together only a brief six months before he passed away in 1986. George was a private, humble man who did not often talk about his past. I knew that he had been the first immigration lawyer in Colorado and that he was a Hungarian refugee who had survived the Holocaust.1 There were other hints of a remarkable life. I had heard that he had obtained law degrees in multiple countries and that he had been a fencing champion, as well as a professional musician. When I was asked to write this article about him, I was concerned that I would not have enough information to do justice to his life and work.
George’s wife Rose had died, and I had lost track of George’s three children. I had some mementos lying around the office, such as his court membership certificates, his law degree from the University of Denver College of Law ("DU Law"), and a wooden desk plaque proudly displayed in our conference room that was given to him by a client with his name inscribed in Persian.
With the Internet and some luck, I was able to locate George’s youngest daughter, Esther, who lives in North Denver and works as the Nurse Administrator for Adams County Schools. I asked Esther to meet with me, and two weeks later she appeared in my office with a brown manila folder with information she had gathered from numerous boxes in her basement. Inside were photographs, birth and marriage certificates, university degrees, recommendation letters, identification papers from prison and displaced persons camps, awards, and bar certificates. These documents contained revelations that even Esther and her siblings knew nothing about. The most startling was the fact that neither of her parents had ever told their children that they were Jewish.
With these documents in the folder, some historical research, and with Esther’s help, I have been able to piece together an outline of George’s extraordinary life. The record shows an amazing ability to adapt to crisis, a love of the law, and a tireless record of service to his clients and the legal community.
Life in Hungary
George was born on January 29, 1917, as George Szekeres in the city of Gyor, located in the northwest part of Hungary near the Austrian border. His father was a prominent Jewish obstetrician/gynecologist. Despite the fact that the Jewish community had strong roots in Hungary, its presence dating back more than 500 years, George grew up surrounded by a climate of intense anti-Semitism. Two years after he was born, a series of riots and violence against the Jews—known as the "White Terror"—occurred in Hungary. More than 3,000 Jews died in the massacres.
Back of International Refugee
Organization Identification Card
showing Carter’s nationality as
In the 1930s, Hungary became increasingly under the influence of Germany, as the Nazis consolidated their power. It later became one of Germany’s closest allies, its soldiers fighting alongside the Germans in the invasions of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union in 1940 and 1941. Racial laws were passed between 1938 and 1941, which were modeled after Germany’s infamous Nuremberg Laws. These laws reversed the equal citizenship laws that had existed since 1867 and prohibited intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, excluded Jews from full participation in various professions, and barred employment of Jews in the civil service.
Even with this atmosphere, George did well in school, graduating number one in his high school in 1935. He was accepted to the University of Budapest College of Law and graduated cum laude in 1938, the same year the Hungarian Parliament restricted Jewish enrollment and Jewish participation in the professions, administration, and commerce in higher education to 20 percent. The following year, it was reduced to 5 percent. Due to these laws, a quarter million Jews lost their jobs.
Flight to France
The exact reason George left Hungary after graduation from law school is unknown, but it is not hard to imagine that he was escaping the noose that was tightening around the neck of Eastern Europe. George went to Paris, where he had spent a previous summer as a foreign language student. France would not be invaded for two more years, and George took advantage of this relative freedom.
He went to work as an office manager for an import/export firm and enrolled in a business administration program at the École des Hautes Etudes Commerciales, graduating number two in his class a year later. He then entered the University of Paris Law School. During this period, George somehow found time for sports and music. He was the captain and leading scorer for the University of Paris Fencing Team and played saxophone and cello in various orchestras and jazz groups. In 1940, he went to work as a "Department Head" for the famous Parisian department store, "Au Printemps."
The Nazis invaded France in May 1940, and Paris fell just a month later. It is impossible to imagine the climate of fear that must have enveloped the Jews living in Paris at that time. The Vichy government of France collaborated with Nazi Germany by freezing approximately 80,000 Jewish bank accounts. During the following four years, the government deported nearly 76,000 Jews to Nazi death camps; only approximately 2,500 survived. There is a record of George’s unsuccessful attempt to escape to the United States in 1941. He somehow obtained a United States entry visa, an incredibly rare document at that time, but was unable to obtain permission from the French authorities to exit France.
George must have hidden his Jewish background, as he continued to work and study. He graduated from law school two months after the Nazis entered Paris and continued his studies toward an LL.M., which he obtained in 1943. He became active in the student resistance movement, though the particulars of this are unknown. After finishing his degree, he became the Editor of "Labor Law," a looseleaf service in Paris known as Fichiers Issele, where he worked from 1941 to 1943.
In February 1943, George was finally discovered by the Nazis. He was arrested and deported to a forced labor camp in Hungary. These camps, under the command of Hungarian military officers, deployed laborers on war-related construction projects under brutal conditions, including extreme cold and inadequate shelter, food, and medical care. Thousands died in these camps before the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944. After that, mass deportations to the death camps began under the direction of Adolf Eichmann. George’s mother was one of those deported to Auschwitz.
George remained in the camp for more than a year and then managed to escape from a labor battalion in November 1944. During the next two months, he worked for the Hungarian underground movement before being recaptured and sent to a slave labor camp run by the Gestapo at Ober-Lanzendorf near Vienna. Four months later, he escaped again.
George’s daughter remembers that her father once told her about this escape. As a result of malnutrition, his weight was down to 73 pounds. Other prisoners helped build up his strength by sharing their food rations with him. When he was strong enough, he fled the camp and hid in some nearby bushes. Guards searched the bushes, poking their bayonets into the thick brush. Their weapons barely missed him.
Due to his weakened condition, he fell into a coma, but was discovered by partisans who took him to a hospital where he remained until the Germans surrendered. Although he had managed to survive the war, his mother died in Auschwitz. By the end of the war, more than half a million of Hungary’s Jews had perished.
When the war ended, George was officially "stateless" and ended up in a displaced persons camp in Germany. Because of his educational background and language abilities, he found employment with the United Nations Refugee & Rehabilitation Agency ("UNRRA") in Bamburg, a city close to Nuremberg. The UNRRA had been established under the leadership of the United States to provide economic assistance to European nations after World War II, and to repatriate and assist the refugees who would come under Allied control. The U.S. government funded close to half of UNRRA’s budget, and it operated under the command of the U.S. military.
George worked for the UNRRA for more than a year as a billeting and messing assistant and, later, as a camp administrator. There is a letter in his file from the U.S. commander under whom he worked, which states, "It has been due to the hard work and untiring efforts of Dr. Szekeres that a feeling of good will has existed between the members of the Jewish DP camp and Occupation Forces in the Bamberg Area."
As a camp administrator, George became increasingly aware of the need of displaced persons for legal counsel. He left the UNRRA in October 1946 to establish a legal aid office under the auspices of the American Joint Distribution Committee ("JDC") in Bamberg. The JDC was established in 1914 as a private Jewish relief organization. After World War II, the JDC entered Europe’s liberated areas and undertook a massive relief campaign. It assisted more than 700,000 Jewish refugees and, at one time, more than a quarter million of them lived in displaced persons camps operated by the JDC.
George initially served as the agency’s legal advisor, representing the JDC’s clients in central and northern Bavaria. In this position, he provided legal counsel to the camp residents and appeared almost daily in the military courts that had been established by the U.S. government to oversee the liberated areas. During this time, he was admitted to practice before the Court of Appeals of the U.S. Military Government Courts.
In December 1948, George married Rose Voros, a fellow Hungarian who also was living in the displaced persons camp. George and Rose would remain married for the rest of his life and would raise three daughters together. Nearly a year later, George and Rose left the camp in Bamberg for Munich, as he had been promoted to the position of JDC Legal Adviser for all of Germany. During this time, he went back to school, earning his third law degree, a doctorate of law from Erlangen University (cum laude). He also served as a part-time instructor of law and authored a textbook in German on military government law. This treatise was used throughout West Germany after the war and is now in the U.S. Library of Congress.
George served as Chief Legal Officer for the JDC for a little more than a year before becoming seriously ill with tuberculosis ("TB"). This illness, which would claim half a lung, caused him to leave his job. On his departure, the JDC Deputy Director under whom George worked wrote a letter indicating the high quality and importance of George’s work. The letter states:
His excellent background in his profession gave him entry to the highest legal offices in the U.S. Military Government, as well as to the Legal Branch of the U.S. High Commissioner’s office for Germany. . . . In addition to his fine professional qualifications, Dr. Szekeres was most outstanding in his ability to understand the many psychological and legal problems facing our Displaced Persons. . . . It was this rare combination of ability and good personal characteristics that made him such an outstanding member of our staff.
Immigration to the
It is unclear how George and Rose gained permission to immigrate to the United States, although I know they arrived on May 23, 1951. On arrival, George was held at Ellis Island for two months because of a positive test for TB. He was then sent to Denver to be monitored for active TB at Denver’s National Jewish Hospital, which was renowned for the treatment of respiratory ailments. After four months, the TB was declared inactive, and George was able to start his life in the United States.
He enrolled at DU Law in 1952. Incredibly, this was to be his fourth law degree, each of them from a different country and in a different language. George’s daughter remembers hearing him repeatedly say: "Education is the most important thing you can give yourself. It is the one thing they can’t take away from you."
At this time, George changed his last name to Carter, which is the English translation of "Szekeres." He supported his family and financed his studies by working as the Manager of Stock Transfer at the Denver National Bank and, later, as Administrative Assistant to the president of the Rocky Mountain Export Company. He graduated cum laude from DU with his LL.M. in 1954, but was unable to obtain his license to practice law until he became a citizen. This finally occurred in 1957, and he was admitted to the Bar at that time.
|Certificate showing Carter was admitted to practice before the U.S. |
Military Government Courts for the U.S. Area of Control in Germany.
George’s contributions to the law and his community continued throughout the next thirty years of his life. He worked either as a sole practitioner or was a partner in a small firm for the remainder of his career, officing for many years in the American National Bank Building (now the Magnolia Hotel). He had a general practice for the first several years that included both civil and criminal law, and became a member of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association.
George also volunteered his time on the National Panel of the American Arbitration Association. He remained physically active, joining the Colorado Fencing Club. He won the Colorado Open Fencing Championship in 1977 at the age of 50, competing against cadets from the Air Force Academy who were less than half his age.
His daughter remembers an incident that caused him to give up the practice of criminal law. He had represented a paranoid schizophrenic who had murdered several members of his own family. George had been able to negotiate a plea of insanity, which resulted in the incarceration of his client in the state mental hospital in Pueblo. The defendant apparently did not appreciate George’s efforts and made threats while in the hospital that he would come after George when he was released. When the man finally was released years later, George carried around a small baseball bat with him wherever he went in case his client showed up. He never took another criminal case.
As the years went by, George began to specialize in the emerging field of international law and, in particular, U.S. immigration and nationality law. Due to his experiences as a war refugee, he personally understood the significance of obtaining U.S. citizenship and the sense of relief and opportunity that it brings. He was a founding member of the Colorado Chapter of the Association of Immigration and Nationality Lawyers (later known as American Immigration Lawyers Association), and became the legal advisor to both the German and French Consulates in Denver. His work included every aspect of immigration law, including deportation and asylum defense, appeals to the Board of Immigration Appeals and the federal courts, family reunification, and business immigration.
In the practice of immigration law, a lawyer is often required to work closely with Immigration and Naturalization Service ("INS") officials, and George fostered a relationship with the Denver INS office that served his clients well. In fact, when I came to work with George in 1986, he had a retired INS Regional Director, Armand Salturelli, on his staff.
When George practiced immigration law, the tight security that now exists at the INS was nonexistent. Lawyers were free to roam the halls of the INS, then located in the Federal Office Building on 19th and Stout Streets in downtown Denver. This freedom fostered a collegial atmosphere, as attorneys could pop in on an INS official for a quick discussion of a client’s case. George was known as a true gentleman of the highest integrity by these officials. A letter written in 1977 from T. E. Flenniken, who was retiring as the District Director of the Denver INS office, states:
Upon the eve of my retirement from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, it is my pleasure to thank you for the courtesy and consideration you have extended to me and my staff in your appearances in behalf of your many clients. The high degree of professionalism you have so modestly displayed has been noticed many times with pleasure and satisfaction.
Louise Germain, the current Assistant Director of Examinations who has been at the Denver INS office for more than twenty years, remembers George as the best attorney with whom she has worked, and still has his card in her Rolodex seventeen years after his death. She recalls that George had a "signature cookie," a homemade delicacy baked by his wife, which he would leave with her every time he visited. At Christmastime, George hosted a banquet in the halls of the INS for all of its employees, something hard to imagine in this day and age.
George’s experiences in the war led him to believe that the law could be used as a tool to foster world peace, and he put much effort into this area. He was a founding member of the Colorado Bar Association’s World Peace Through Law Commission (the predecessor of the World Jurists Association), serving as chairman of several committees. He became a member of the American Society of International Law, an adjunct faculty member at DU Law, and wrote many articles on international and immigration law. He also helped Nazi victims of the Holocaust apply for and obtain reparations from the German government.
George’s many contributions to the community and legal profession were recognized during his long career. He won the prestigious Pro Bono Award from the Colorado Bar Association in 1985, the year before he retired, and was an entry in Marquis Who’s Who since the 1960s. There is a letter in George’s file from Maurice Roberts, the dean of American immigration lawyers and former head of the Board of Immigration Appeals in Washington, D.C. In the immigration bar, this is equivalent to getting a letter from Oliver Wendell Holmes. Roberts heard that George was going to retire and took the time to write, stating:
For a long time, you have been one of the leading immigration practitioners in your area. It must be a source of some satisfaction to you to know you have been able to help so many people in this difficult field of the law. Your absence from the ranks of active practitioners will be felt by many.
At that time, George did not want to completely retire from the practice of law. He merely wished to slow down and to spend time with his wife in a vacation home they had purchased in Glenwood Springs. He wanted to soak in the mineral baths there and take up music once again.
Unfortunately, his life would be cut short by a terrible illness, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He knew he had the disease when he asked me to come to work with him at the end of 1985. He didn’t know, however, how quickly the disease would take him. George died in July 1986 at the age of 69. Fellow attorneys, former clients, and INS officials filled the funeral hall. An immigration judge delivered his eulogy.
I remember that George felt very grateful to the United States, and once told me that he considered it a privilege to pay his taxes. He came to this country with nothing but his education and the desire to contribute. Because of his modesty and private nature, I had no idea of the scope of this contribution. Having examined the contents of George’s old file, it seems impossible to me that this humble, quiet man could have accomplished so much. His life is a testament to the immigrant experience in this country. He truly deserves to be called one of "the greatest."
1. Facts relating to the Holocaust in this article are from the following sources: http://www. heritagefilms.com; http://www.Holocaust-history.org; http://www.religioustolerance.org; and the Jewish Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies—http://www.ushmm.org.
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