The remarkable life of Benjamin Ferencz
The Nuremberg prosecutor died this week at the age of 103
My first job out of college was as an “Exhibitions Assistant” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust in New York. The role was, essentially, at the bottom of the museum hierarchy; I created spreadsheets, took notes in meetings, made photocopies and catalogued objects. I was paid $28,000 per year.
At the time, the museum was in the midst of creating what-would-become a major exhibition about American Jews in the Second World War. My dad’s father served in the war and my mother’s parents were Holocaust survivors, so I had an acute interest in the subject. I worked my way up to become more involved with the curation of the show: selecting artifacts, designing galleries, writing wall text, and choosing which veterans to feature. We’d conducted more than 450 interviews, and I spent many hours watching oral histories and selecting testimonies to form the basis for the galleries. Throughout the project, the curators and historians kept repeating one name that I had to include: Benjamin Ferencz.
At the time, I’d never heard of Ferencz. I’d grown up with the Holocaust, and studied history in high school and college, yet I’d never learned about him in any of my classes. As a lead prosecutor at Nuremberg, a negotiator on behalf of Holocaust victims, and a principal advocate for the creation of the International Criminal Court, his actions and efforts have had a profound impact on our modern ideas of human rights, the possibilities for justice after conflict, and for holding perpetrators accountable for war crimes. He died this week at the age of 103.
For many readers—particularly those who are younger—I suspect Ferencz’s name remains unfamiliar. One could make an argument, however, that Ferencz was one of the most important figures of the 20th century.
Benjamin Ferencz was born to Jewish parents in the Transylvania region of Romania in 1920. When his family immigrated to the United States as a young child, they changed his given name of “Beryl” to the Americanized “Benny,” after Benny Leonard, the professional boxer. In high school, it was formalized to Benjamin and in college he took Beryl as his middle name, becoming Benjamin B. Ferencz.
Initially settling on the Lower East Side of New York, Ferencz’s father, who was illiterate, got a job as a janitor in an apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen, on West 56th Street and 10th Avenue. Ferencz’s parents were actually second cousins who had been assigned to marry at birth. Their marriage was not a happy one, and the two divorced when Benny was six years old. Ferencz and his sister went to live with his aunt in Brooklyn, where he entered the New York City public schools. He went to Townsend Harris High School, City College (majoring in sociology), and then Harvard Law School.
It was while he was at Harvard that America entered World War II. Ferencz stated in oral histories that even though he was aware of the Nazi persecution of Jews in Europe during his youth, his initial sympathies were with the peace movement and isolationists who argued that America should not get involved in Europe’s calamities. That changed after December 7, 1941, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ferencz applied to serve in Military Intelligence, thinking that his language skills would be an asset (he spoke French, Hungarian, and Yiddish, among others), but his parents had not been U.S. citizens for long enough and he was denied entry. He tried to join the U.S. Army Air Forces but was denied due to his height (Ferencz was very short) and because of his poor eyesight.
So, Ferencz remained at Harvard Law, during which time two important developments occurred. Ferencz was, literally, a poor student; “my grades were fine, but I had no money,” he once quipped. To earn money, he worked as a researcher for one of his professors who was writing a book on war crimes. That professor began to receive reports from Europe of atrocities that were occurring to Polish Jews, which he shared with Ferencz. There were accounts of massacres, as well as reports of Jews being rounded up and sent to camps.
Once out of law school, Ferencz returned to the draft board. He would often joke in public speeches that the U.S. Army recognized his legal expertise by making him a private in the artillery preparing for the invasion of France. He landed on the beaches of Normandy a few days after D-Day, and proceeded through Europe until Allied leaders stated publicly that they would hold responsible those among the Axis who’d committed war crimes. The Army had no war crimes experience, however. So, while Ferencz was in Luxembourg, his name was “fished out,” as he put it, and he was transferred out of his unit and sent to Third Army headquarters. A colonel told him that they were setting up a War Crimes Division and that Ferencz had been identified as having legal experience. “What’s a war crime?” the colonel then asked him.
Ferencz proceeded to help the Army establish its war crimes office. Their first cases concerned Allied airmen that were shot down over Axis territory and murdered once they landed. Ferencz’s division would receive reports of a downed plane, and he and others would ride in a jeep to the location. They would line-up civilians and witnesses against a wall and ask for their testimonies, writing out what happened. Anyone found to be lying would be shot.
While writing his reports, Ferencz began to hear stories of people walking around the woods wearing pajamas, looking like they were skeletons. Soon after, he and his infantry unit were alerted to Buchenwald concentration camp and ordered to investigate it. When they arrived, Ferencz and his team immediately began to collect evidence with an eye towards prosecution. They located registers kept by the Nazis that listed individuals murdered in the camp; rosters of S.S. personnel who worked in the camp; statements from witnesses who survived; and directed the U.S. Signal Corps to take photographs. Ferencz would later say that no photograph could do justice to the scenes he and others witnessed: S.S. troopers running into the woods; people dying everywhere; diarrhea, lice, typhus, and other diseases running rampant; medics rushing to try to save lives; and the stench of burning bodies all around.
Following Buchenwald, Ferencz collected evidence at Ohrdruf, Ebensee, Flossenbürg and Mauthausen. At Dachau, he conducted war crimes trials in the camp, personally nailing up the sign that said, “United States Third Army War Crimes Unit, Dachau.” The unit ultimately tried by military commissions more than 1,000 people based on evidence collected by Ferencz and others. All were convicted; most were sentenced the death. The average time of trial was approximately two minutes. “It’s not something we talk about,” Ferencz would say decades later. “Nothing we’re very proud of. There were no high principles established.”
After the war in Europe concluded, Ferencz went home. He was discharged from the Army, but soon received a request from the Pentagon asking him to return to Germany as a civilian. Shortly after, attorney Telford Taylor, the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, reached out to Ferencz and asked him to join his team. The Nuremberg Trials had already convicted Nazi leadership of war crimes, but Taylor and Ferencz understood that complicity for the Holocaust’s atrocities extended to other segments of German society: government officials, lower-level military officers, scientists and others. Taylor and Ferencz began to collect evidence to demonstrate how all levels of German society were complicit in Nazism, asking how an entire society could engage in wholesale slaughter.
Ferencz established The Office of the Chief Counsel for War Crimes, Berlin Branch. They scoured millions of records for evidence of murder, rape, and crimes beyond military necessity, breaking down the types of cases they could put together in a short period of time, so as to capitalize on world attention. One day, in the basement of a burnt-out Gestapo headquarters, a researcher found records recounting chronologically all the murders in all the towns by German extermination squads. These daily reports belonged to the Einsatzgruppen, mobile Nazi killing squads that traveled across Eastern Europe “eliminating” tens-of-thousands of Jews, Roma and opposition leaders.
Ferencz brought the evidence to Taylor and told him it was sufficient for a trial. Taylor did not want to remove his staff from their current cases, so he offered Ferencz the chance to be the lead prosecutor. Ferencz became the chief prosecutor for the United States in United States of America vs. Otto Ohlendorf, et al. (Case No. 9), otherwise known as the Einsatzgruppen case. He was 27 years old.
The records found in Berlin clearly indicated the towns where massacres took place, the names of the commanders, the troops involved and how many people were killed. For example, at Babi Yar, a ravine outside of Kiev, more than 33,000 Jews were murdered in September 1941. Over a million people were killed in total by the Einsatzgruppen. The defendants spent five months arguing their innocence; Ferencz laid out his prosecution in two days. He called no witnesses. Thirteen Nazi defendants were sentenced to death; six were S.S. generals. Most had doctorate degrees.
The chief defendant in the case was a man named Dr. Otto Ohlendorf, the lead officer of Einsatzgruppe D. Ohlendorf was a father of five children, an expert in economics, and held a doctorate degree in jurisprudence. After being sentenced to death, Ferencz asked him how a unit under his command could kill 90,000 Jews, Roma and political opponents. Ferencz recalls that Ohlendorf explained it calmly and dispassionately. He claimed Germany had acted in self-defense. He claimed that the German leadership knew that Bolsheviks would attack Germany, and so the Germans had to strike first. Since the Germans believed that all Jews were sympathetic to the Bolsheviks, they had to be killed. Ferencz asked why they killed thousands of children. Ohlendorf said that if the children grew up knowing that the Germans had killed their parents, they would become enemies of Germany. Thus, for the long-term protection of Germany, they had to kill the children. “I never saw any remorse on the part of any of them,” Ferencz would say. Ohlendorf was executed in 1951, among the last Nazis put to death.
Ferencz’s story did not end in Nuremberg. In many ways, it was just beginning. He remained in Germany following the trials, negotiating with the West German government to establish a restitution program for victims of the Holocaust. The total amount negotiated was in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but by Ferencz’s own admission, it was not a large pay-out; approximately $1 per day for Auschwitz survivors. How do you measure the appropriate compensation for death? How do you measure the fear and horror that survivors experienced every day? Ferencz came to believe that the only solution was to avoid war itself. “You will never have a war without atrocities,” he once said. “War, itself, is the biggest atrocity.”
The remainder of Ferencz’s long life was as remarkable as its early years. The obituary published by The New York Times does a decent job of summarizing its contours. (As an aside, the person who wrote the obituary is Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Robert D. McFadden, who join the Times in 1961!) Apart from Nuremberg, Ferencz’s greatest legacy is, arguably, the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), established in 2002, and for which he advocated for many years and expressed great dismay that the United States decided not to become a party to. Though the ICC is far from perfect, it remains the only permanent international body that can prosecute genocide and crimes against humanity. Ferencz’s experiences during World War II and the Nuremberg Trials directly informed his advocacy.
Towards the end of his life, Ferencz donated more than $1 million to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. to establish the Ferencz International Justice Initiative, which aims to give current victims and survivors of mass atrocities a chance to seek justice. He also became the subject of a documentary film, “Prosecuting Evil.” He studied and spoke on international law, human rights, and the prosecution of war crimes for more than 50 years, writing books, articles and op-eds and speaking all around the world. He died on April 7 in Florida.
Ferencz was a short man—when he spoke, he would sometimes stand on a step to reach the microphone. He had a beautiful voice, like a radio host, and an incredibly thick (and wonderful) New York City accent. For a small man, his actions and efforts throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century left a huge legacy. He not only helped ensure that the world would know about the Holocaust, collecting and documenting evidence that otherwise would have been destroyed or never recorded—he also helped to create a framework for how we as a society can bring perpetrators to justice for unspeakable crimes, as well as shaping and informing global views on human rights, genocide, and justice. In his own estimation, one of the legacies of the Nuremberg Trials was to make lawmaking—which had long been a national right—into an international right. Throughout his life, he maintained optimism that change was possible, despite all the horrors he had seen. As he once said:
“I’m not pessimistic at all. I’m very optimistic, and I’ll tell you why. When I went to law school, there was no such as thing as international criminal law. No one had ever heard of genocide… There was no discussion about human rights… There was no such thing as an International Criminal Court, and there was no such thing as ad hoc criminal courts, either. All of those things have come into fruition during my lifetime… a blink of an eye in historical time. We have changed the way people think, which is very difficult… What we have to do is never give up. Keep pushing that rock up the hill… It may be a bit tiresome, at times, and of course there are periods where we get discouraged. But I think we owe it to the memory of those who perished never to give up. And never to abandon the ideals that we had when the war was over that we could create a world where all human begins could live in peace and human dignity. Those were our dreams, those were our ideals, those were the reasons that we fought, those were the reasons that many died. So, let us keep that in mind… and if you do, you’ll live to see a much better and more peaceful world.
May his memory be a blessing.
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The work of Ferencz and the International Criminal Court continues https://www.icc-cpi.int/news/situation-ukraine-icc-judges-issue-arrest-warrants-against-vladimir-vladimirovich-putin-and
This was a great read of a great man. Thank you for a wonderfully written article.