Benjamin Ferencz, The Prosecutor Who Took on Nazi Death Squads, Dies at 103
Benjamin Ferencz, the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials, has died the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington confirmed. He was 103.
"Today the world lost a leader in the quest for justice for victims of genocide and related crimes," the museum tweeted on Friday, April 7.
Born into a Hungarian Jewish family Transylvania, Romania, in 1920, Ferencz emigrated with his family to the United States just 10 months after he was born to escape rampant anti-Semitism. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1943, Ferencz enlisted in the U.S. Army and was given the job of anti- aircraft artillery gunner.
Ferencz reminisced about the Army’s odd job placement in a 2016 interview with the Washington Post, noting, “In their typical [Army] brilliance, being a Harvard Law School graduate and an expert on war crimes, they assigned me to clean the latrines in the artillery and do every other filthy thing they could give me.”
“It took a while before it began to dawn upon them that perhaps I might be useful for something else,” he continued.
The diminutive Ferencz — who barely registered over five feet tall — was extremely outspoken and eventually rose to the rank of sergeant as a member of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. Action during the Normandy invasion followed — getting off his landing craft at Omaha Beach, Ferencz found himself in water that came up to his waist while for most of the others it came up to their knees — as did breaking through the Maginot and Siegfried lines, crossing the Rhine and bitter fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.
It was Ferencz’s last Army assignment, however, that would forever alter the trajectory of his life.
After Ferencz’s honorable discharge in 1945 Gen. Telford Taylor, then the chief prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials, recruited Ferencz to return to Germany and work with a team of investigators tasked with uncovering the horrors of the Nazi regime.
Tasked with gathering credible evidence of Nazi war crimes for the Army’s War Crimes Branch, Ferencz encountered the depths of human depravity. The Germans maintained meticulous death registries at the camps of Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Flossenbürg and Ebensee.
“Camps like Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Dachau are vividly imprinted in my mind’s eye,” Ferencz said in an interview with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Even today, when I close my eyes, I witness a deadly vision I can never forget […]”
One of his investigators had discovered a trove of secret reports while rummaging through an annex of the German Foreign Ministry near Tempelhof Airport. The typed pages, bound in loose-leaf folders, had been sent daily by the Gestapo to top Nazi officials. They provided full details of mass shootings of Jews, Gypsies, and other civilian “enemies” on the Eastern Front by Einsatzgruppen — SS extermination squads that followed the German army into the Soviet Union.
As Ferencz tallied up the numbers of victims listed in the reports, he was stunned. “When I passed the figure of one million, I stopped adding,” he recalled. “That was quite enough for me.”
In the subsequent trial, the International Military Tribunal determined that nearly two million Jews were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen.
According to the Washington Post, 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.
Gen. Taylor was under extreme pressure to wrap up tribunal proceedings that included the prosecution of Nazi doctors who had conducted medical experiments on prisoners, as well as the trove of evidence against the roving killers that made up the Einsatzgruppen.
At the time, Taylor’s staff was overextended and underequipped to take on another case.
“I start screaming,” Ferencz told 60 Minutes in 2017. “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.”
At the young age of 27 Ferencz, with no previous trial experience, became chief prosecutor in what is considered to be one of the biggest murder trials in history.
In theory, Ferencz could have charged thousands. In reality, he was limited to the number of seats in the courtroom — 24.
Choosing defendants based on rank and education, of the original 24 he selected to prosecute, one committed suicide before the trial and another died shortly later due to poor health, leaving Ferencz to prosecute 22 men for crimes against humanity.
He was also the first to use the word “genocide,” a new term coined by a Polish-Jewish refugee lawyer, Raphael Lemkin, in a court of law.
In his opening statement of United States of America v. Otto Ohlendorf et. al, Ferencz told the judge, "the killing of defenseless civilians during a war may be a war crime, but the same killings are part of another crime, a graver one, if you will, genocide, or a crime against humanity. This is the distinction we make in our pleading. It is real and most significant.”
Ferencz continued, “Death was their tool and life their toy. If these men be immune, then law has lost its meaning, and man must live in fear.”
All 22 men prosecuted by Ferencz were convicted. Most were sentenced to death. Defendant Emil Haussmann died prior to the trial.
Looking back, Ferencz offered the final figures to historian Andrew Nagorski: “I had 3,000 Einsatzgruppen members who every day went out and shot as many Jews as they could and Gypsies as well. I tried 22, I convicted 22, 14 were sentenced to death, four of them were actually executed, the rest of them got out after a few years.” By 1958, the last of the surviving defendants were free men. Ferencz added somberly: “The other 3,000 — nothing ever happened to them. Every day they had committed mass murder.”
After Nuremberg, Ferencz returned to New York with his wife, Gertrude, and spent several years tracking down and recovering the unclaimed heirlooms of Europe’s murdered Jews.
Motivated by what he saw during the Vietnam War, Ferencz quit his private practice and worked to establish an International Criminal Court with the power to investigate and charge individuals and nations of genocidal acts and war crimes.
The ICC was finally established in July 2002. Notably, the U.S. signed the treaty, but Congress did not ratify it.
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