Ben Ferencz: He Was the Lawyer for Humanity

From a Washington Post obit by Emily Langer headlined “Ben Ferencz, last living Nuremberg prosecutor, dies at 103”:

Ben Ferencz was a 27-year-old lawyer with no courtroom experience when he prosecuted what would be called the largest murder case in history. Standing 5-foot-2, he nearly disappeared behind the lectern in the packed courtroom in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1947.

Mr. Ferencz, a Transylvanian-born Jew who had arrived in the United States as an infant, presented to a U.S. tribunal the massive case against 22 authorities of the mobile Nazi killing units, called Einsatzgruppen, that operated in Eastern Europe during World War II.

All 22 defendants were convicted. Four were executed. If not for Mr. Ferencz, a former Army investigator who personally tallied the million deaths using sequestered German war documents and brought the case to his superiors, the men might never have been tried.

He was “the lawyer for humanity,” said John Q. Barrett, a professor of law at St. John’s University in New York City and a scholar of the Nuremberg trials. “The scale of the atrocities, the pure innocence of the victims … was at the heart of the exterminationist evil of Nazism.”

Mr. Ferencz, who devoted much of the rest of his life to the cause of international justice, and who was the last living Nuremberg prosecutor, died April 7 at an assisted-living facility in Boynton Beach, Fla. He was 103. His son, Don, confirmed the death but gave no cause.

Mr. Ferencz spoke only Yiddish until he went to school, and he was the first person in his family to go to college. He graduated from Harvard Law School, where he studied war crimes before joining the Army midway through World War II. He was detailed to an investigations unit collecting evidence of Nazi crimes.

Following Allied liberators, Mr. Ferencz visited Nazi concentration camps, including Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Dachau.

“Even today, when I close my eyes, I witness a deadly vision I can never forget — the crematoria aglow with the fire of burning flesh, the mounds of emaciated corpses stacked like cordwood waiting to be burned,” he once said. “I had peered into hell.”

Mr. Ferencz said that when he left Europe at the end of his military service, he wished never to return to Germany. But he was soon recruited back to serve as a civilian under Brig. Gen. Telford Taylor, who succeeded U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson as chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg.

By the time Mr. Ferencz’s phase of the proceedings began, the highest Nazi officials, including Hermann Göring and Rudolf Hess, had been prosecuted. Britain, France and the Soviet Union had moved on to other postwar concerns, leaving the United States to oversee any further prosecutions in Nuremberg.

Under Taylor’s prosecutorial leadership, the tribunal decided the cases of Nazi doctors who had conducted medical experiments on concentration camp inmates, as well as industrialists who had availed themselves of slave labor.

Mr. Ferencz was overseeing investigators examining documents in the German Foreign Ministry when one of his researchers discovered top-secret reports from Einsatzgruppen, detailing the towns and cities the killing squads passed through and the horrors they visited upon them. Barrett described the documents as “murder receipts.”

One, labeled Exhibit 179, was a dispatch from Kyiv.

“The city’s Jews were ordered to present themselves,” read the document, according to an account on the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes.” “About thirty-four thousand reported, including women and children. After they had been made to give up their clothing and valuables, all of them were killed, which took several days.”

Speaking to the London Guardian, Mr. Ferencz recalled that one defendant had ordered 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.”

With the United States seeking to form a Cold War alliance with what was to become West Germany, Taylor was under pressure to conclude the tribunal’s proceedings, Barrett said. Initially, the overextended staff seemed unprepared to take on another case, especially one as large as the Einsatzgruppen matter. But Mr. Ferencz implored his superiors not to overlook such a consequential crime.

“I start screaming,” Mr. Ferencz told “60 Minutes” in 2017, recalling his conversation with Taylor. “I said, Look, I’ve got here mass murder, mass murder on an unparalleled scale. And he said, can you do this in addition to your other work? And I said, sure. He said, okay. So you do it.”

With that, Mr. Ferencz found himself in charge of the case.

He chose the defendants based on their rank and education. He could have charged thousands, he said, but was limited by the number of seats in the courtroom.

Mr. Ferencz called no witnesses; the copious Nazi documentation was sufficient to obtain convictions. The defense sought unsuccessfully to challenge the authenticity of the reports, claiming that the killing units had boastfully inflated the number of dead, and arguing that the defendants were simply following orders — a position roundly rejected at Nuremberg.

Mr. Ferencz’s statements before the court were notable, Barrett said, because he used the still-new term “genocide.” Calmly, yet forcefully, he argued that the defendants had acted not according to “military necessity, but by that supreme perversion of thought: the Nazi theory of the master race.”

“Vengeance is not our goal, nor do we seek merely a just retribution,” Mr. Ferencz said in his opening statement. “We ask this court to affirm by international penal action, man’s right to live in peace and dignity, regardless of his race or creed. The case we present is a plea of humanity to law.”

In its judgment, the court declared that “the charge of purposeful homicide in this case reaches such fantastic proportions and surpasses such credible limits that believability must be bolstered with assurance a hundred times repeated.”

Mr. Ferencz carried out his “plea of humanity to law” for decades as an advocate for the rule of law. By the 1970s, as he became increasingly disheartened by the Vietnam War, he scaled back his private New York legal practice to devote himself to the cause of establishing an infrastructure for international justice.

Barrett described him as a “one-man conscience operation,” writing books and “buttonholing … cajoling … pushing” for the establishment of the permanent legal institution that, in 1998, became the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Mr. Ferencz contended that the very act of war — the impetus for the crimes against humanity that he sought to avoid — was the most grievous crime of all.

At the ICC’s first trial, against Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo in 2011, Mr. Ferencz was invited at age 91 to deliver closing arguments. The next year, Lubanga was convicted of the war crime of using child soldiers.

Wherever international justice was practiced, Mr. Ferencz seemed in some way present. Antonio Cassese, first president of The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, recalled in remarks to the United Nations Mr. Ferencz’s words at the Nuremberg trial:

“Death was their tool and life their toy,” he said. “If these men be immune, then law has lost its meaning, and man must live in fear.”

Bela Ferencz was born in the Transylvanian town of Somcuta Mare, in what was then Hungary, on March 11, 1920. In the United States he was given the name Benjamin Berell Ferencz.

He grew up in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, where his father worked as a janitor and house painter. He graduated in 1940 from the City College of New York and in 1943 from Harvard Law School.

During the war, he participated in the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. After the Nuremberg trials, he worked in Europe on programs to restore stolen property and offer compensation to victims of Nazi persecution.

Mr. Ferencz later went into private practice with Taylor, becoming a partner at his New York firm. In 2016, Mr. Ferencz made financial pledges to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for the establishment of the Ben Ferencz International Justice Initiative to assist those “seeking redress — rather than revenge” — for genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Among Mr. Ferencz’s writing were the books “Defining International Aggression: The Search for World Peace” (1975); “Less Than Slaves: Jewish Forced Labor and the Quest for Compensation” (1979), which Kirkus Reviews described as “an important dossier on the private role of German big business in Nazi Germany”; and “An International Criminal Court: A Step Toward World Peace” (1980).

Decades after World War II, Mr. Ferencz remained haunted by what he had seen, in the camps and in the courtroom. The defendants, he told “60 Minutes,” “would never have been murderers had it not been for the war. These were people who could quote Goethe, who loved Wagner, who were polite.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond.

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