After seven decades fighting genocide, this 96-year-old prosecutor is still hard at work
A chief US prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, Benjamin Ferencz has campaigned for justice since — now in the form of a $1m. gift to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum
‘If we’re going to be accurate, I’m in my 97th year. I turned 96 last March, so really 96 is over and finished with,” Benjamin Ferencz said, speaking with The Times of Israel via telephone from his home in Del Ray Beach, Florida.
That attention to detail and insistence on precision is what helped Ferencz, a chief prosecutor for the United States during the Nuremberg Trials, successfully secure one of the world’s first convictions for crimes against humanity nearly 70 years ago. It’s also what propels Ferencz to keep fighting for justice.
This time the fight comes in the form of a million-dollar donation to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, which will establish the Ferencz International Justice Initiative. The Ferencz Initiative will work to strengthen the rule of law for atrocity prevention and response, promote justice and accountability in countries where genocide has occurred.
“I have witnessed holocausts and I cannot stop trying to deter future genocides. After Nuremberg I laid out my life plan on how you go about saving the world. People concluded ‘that man is crazy!’ But I wanted to change the way people think. You cannot kill an entrenched ideology with a gun,” said Ferencz.
‘I cannot stop trying to deter future genocides’
“You have to teach compassion and tolerance at a young age. The rule of law must be applied universally to protect humankind universally. It’s a long-range problem, and ‘Law, not war’ is my slogan,” he said.
It has been Ferencz’s mandate ever since at the age of 27 he secured the convictions of 22 defendants, all high-ranking SS officers, in the Einsatzgruppen Case. At the time, the Associated Press called it “the biggest murder trial in history.” Thirteen of the defendants were sentenced to death for their role in murdering more than one million people.
“I think about it every day, but not for the reasons you think. I think about them everyday, but not in terms of anger and vengeance,” Ferencz said. “No, I chose the defendants for their rank and education; they were PhDs and generals. They were individuals who had to be held to account civilly and criminally in national and international court.”
When Ferencz was just 10 months old, his family, Hungarian Jews, moved to the US from the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania. He lived in a small basement apartment in Manhattan’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” His father worked as a janitor in an uptown apartment building. He and his sister moved in with an aunt in Brooklyn after his parents divorced. He was six at the time.
“We were poor, we didn’t have anything. Education became everything,” he said.
Ferencz graduated from the City College of New York. Upon graduating from Harvard Law School in 1943, he joined an anti-aircraft artillery battalion. As a combat soldier Ferencz fought in every major campaign in the European theater, from the invasion of Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge.
‘We were poor, we didn’t have anything. Education became everything’
Then in the winter of 1945 as the Allied forces pushed toward Berlin — the US and UK from the west, the former Soviet Union from the east — Ferencz was tasked with gathering evidence of Nazi brutality. He was to be part of the United States’ first-ever war crimes branch.
He visited concentration and extermination camps, he took photos, and he interviewed witnesses and survivors.
“I once wrote that I had peered into hell, and I had, but I don’t wake up every day screaming ‘Kill all the Germans,”’ Ferencz said.
A remarkable sentiment considering several of his family members perished in Nazi concentration camps. Yet, the search for justice, not vengeance, is a defining characteristic of this nonagenarian.
“He’s an inspirational guy,” said Cameron Hudson, Director of the Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.
Of course Ferencz’s gift is more than inspirational, it will help boost research in the still nascent field of genocide prevention, Hudson said. Literature exists on military response, on whether sanctions are effective tools, but there is less on how to leverage international law.
“While there’s a widely held assumption that holding people accountable for war crimes is a deterrent, there are a lot of gaps in our knowledge of how that works. There is also very little practical understanding of how to pursue justice for crimes that are currently being committed,” Hudson said. “The field of international law and international justice is about as old as Ben Ferencz. It’s still a very young field. The idea is pretty simple — holding people accountable — but it’s still pretty revolutionary at the same time.”
After the trials, Ferencz dedicated his legal expertise to securing restitution for Holocaust survivors, who “had survived with only their tattoos and scarred memories,” he said. As director of the United Restitution Organization he also worked to recover stolen Jewish properties, businesses, art and religious objects and return them to rightful owners.
The field of international law and international justice is about as old as Ben Ferencz’
After an honorable discharge from the US Army, Ferencz built a private practice. However, as the Vietnam War escalated, he found himself once again thinking of the role courts could play to combat genocide.
“I found normal life was rather boring and started studying and writing about world peace and the role of international law,” he said.
Numerous articles and books followed. His writings helped lay the groundwork for the International Criminal Court, established in 1998 to prosecute cases of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crime of aggression.
This isn’t Ferencz’s first gift to the museum. Over the decades he donated one of the largest collections of documents to the Museum’s archives, including diaries, documents from his war crimes work and the Einsatzgruppen Trial, and family history. In 2015 the Museum honored Ferencz with the Elie Wiesel Award, its highest honor.
“He [Ferencz] shares our conviction that genocide can be prevented but when it does occur, its perpetrators must be held accountable. His pioneering work and passion for international justice will continuously inform and inspire our efforts in genocide prevention,” Hudson said.
Indeed Ferencz, who cares for Gertrude, his wife of 68 years, has no intention of slowing down.
“I was 27 when I made the closing argument at Nuremberg for the Einsatzgruppen Case. I was 92 when I made remarks in the closing arguments against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo [former leader of the Patriotic Forces for the Liberation of the Congo, charged with recruiting child soldiers],” Ferencz said.
“It’s still a prototype, we are trying to reverse thousands of years of war-making mentality. That doesn’t happen overnight. It’s just beginning,” said 96-year-old Ferencz.