The man who brought the Nazi death squads to justice
Benjamin Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials

It was called the biggest murder trial in history. Twenty-two members of the Einsatzgruppen, Nazi extermination squads responsible for the deaths of more than a million Jews and many thousands of Gypsies, partisans and others, were tried and convicted at Nuremberg. The chief prosecutor for the United States in the case was former army sergeant Benjamin Ferencz. It was his first trial, and he was 27 at the time.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of that case, and there is nobody else alive in the world with 97-year-old Ferencz’s perspective. As the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials, he has witnessed more in his lifetime than most.

He began his pursuit of the law as a studious adolescent who won a scholarship to Harvard law school. After graduating, he joined an anti-aircraft artillery battalion of the U.S. Army and “received five battle stars from the Pentagon for having not been killed in every major battle in Europe.”

In 1945, as Nazi atrocities were uncovered, Ferencz was transferred to the headquarters of General Patton’s third army, tasked with setting up a new war-crimes branch. He was present at, or arrived soon after, the liberation of concentration camps including Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Flossenbürg and Ebensee, scouring the barbarous scenes for evidence of Nazi wrongdoing to present at trial. The most significant items he collected, he says, were the death registries, kept as meticulously by the Germans as hospital birth certificates.

“There were 3,000 men who, for two years, murdered people, including children and infants,” Ferencz recalls with a memory that defies his years. “One shot at a time, or, as one of my lead defendants who killed 90,000 instructed his troops: ‘If the mother is holding an infant to her breast, don’t shoot the mother. Shoot the infant because the bullet will go through both of them, and you’ll save ammunition.’ ”

The defendants, he explains, were picked on the basis of their rank and education. “But then the decisive absurdity: why only 22? Well, there were only 22 seats in the dock. It was ridiculous, but it was symbolic. We were trying to show people how horrible it is if you take a leader who’s very charismatic, and unquestion-ably follow him, even to murdering little children. These were educated people; one was a father of five children. They were not all wild beasts with horns.”

It was far from a painless job, and what Ferencz saw in the concentration camps haunts him to this day. “It’s unimaginable. Bodies lying around; you can’t tell if they’re dead or alive, pleading with their eyes for help. Waving their hand and you see they’re alive, in rags; rats, dysentery, diarrhea, every disease in the camps. It was an experience indescribable because of its horror. It was as if I had peered into hell. That’s why I’m still fighting, to prevent that from happening again.”

This fight includes convincing the world that countries are stronger and safer together than they are apart, at a time when national interests are increasingly being emphasized over international laws.

“My general reasoning is that the world is a small planet,” Ferencz says. “We must share the resources on this planet, so that everyone can live in peace and human dignity, and it can be done. The recognition that we have to move as a unit gave us the E.U., it gave us the U.S., 50 states with very differing opinions. Most wars are fought against another group, the ‘other.’ When you are a part of the other, you’re less inclined to attack it.

“Today, some people are fleeing for their lives, other people are saying: ‘Not in my backyard, take them someplace else, they speak a different language, they don’t want to work’ – all that junk. But you wouldn’t treat your family that way, I hope. We’re all brothers and sisters, and Great Britain, with its large colonies, should certainly recognize that.”

The European Convention on Human Rights, he adds, is another expression of hope, similar to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, drawn up following the war.

On sovereignty and nationalism, Ferencz says the popularity of figures such as Trump, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage was never beyond the realms of possibility. “People always have differences of opinion, and when the shoe hurts the foot, they’ve got to kick somebody, and they’re not always rational. A man like Mr. Trump doesn’t fit the pattern of trained politician or international realist, optimist or idealist, but almost half the people voted for him.”

The way to tackle politicians who peddle hate, he continues, is to try to change the opinions you don’t agree with through compassion, compromise and courage. “You begin at the earliest level. When little Johnny is playing baseball with little Tommy and he doesn’t like what Tommy does, you teach him he doesn’t hit him with a bat, he talks to him and tries to settle it.

“My slogan has always been ‘law not war’. You would save billions every day and be able to take care of refugees who don’t have a home, students who can’t afford tuition, the poor and the elderly. Think of all the money we are wasting on preserving the outdated nuclear weapons, which nobody knows what to do with and which are obsolete.”

He remains optimistic about society’s inevitable advancement, however. “Fundamental things such as colonialism and slavery, the rights of women, the emancipation of sex, landing on the moon, these were inconceivable not long ago. But miracles can be performed.”

Since the Second World War, Ferencz has stayed busy, leading efforts to return property to Holocaust survivors, participating in reparations negotiations between Israel and West Germany. In 1970, as the US was embroiled in Vietnam, he decided to withdraw from private practice altogether and devote himself to promoting peace. He wrote several books outlining his ideas for an international legal body, which became fundamental in the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

For his work and achievements, Ferencz has received many awards, including the medal of freedom from Harvard in 2014.

If he had to give three pieces of advice to young people, they would be: “One, never give up. Two, never give up. Three, never give up.”

Although he lives in New Rochelle, New York, these days he spends much of his time in Florida with his wife Gertrude; they have four children, all of whom have retired. “My wife is a few years older than me. She couldn’t take the cold of New York at this time of year. We’ve been 70 years wed without a quarrel. So I’ve got to get back to Florida and continue to take care of her.”

– edited from an article by Nadia Khomami in The Guardian (U.K.), February 7, 2017
PeaceMeal, July/August 2017

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