82ºF

'Biggest murder trial in the world' prosecutor, now 96: 'I try to save the world'

69 years later, Benjamin Ferencz recalls Nazi case in vivid detail

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – Thursday marked 69 years to the day that the hearing known as “the biggest murder trial in the world” began — the case against a group of 22 Nazi leaders accused in crimes against humanity.

The chief prosecutor of the case is the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials, in Germany. He’s also a resident of South Florida, and at the age of 96, he’s still going strong.

"I was born in Transylvania,” Benjamin Ferencz said. "My family fled to New York. (We were) poor immigrants (with) no money, no language, no usable skills. Our first home was Hell's Kitchen, New York.”
 
Currently, for Ferencz, home is in Delray Beach. Some neighbors don’t even realize the legal legend is among them.

“In order to occupy my time, instead of getting bored, I try to save the world,” Ferencz said.
 
But in some ways, he already has.

“This picture is the actual Nuremberg Courtroom,” Ferencz said.
 
Seven decades later, Ferencz remembers in vivid detail the 22 Nazi officers he prosecuted during the International Military Tribunals, collectively known as the Nuremberg Trials. He was 27 years old at the time.
 
“I had never tried a case before,” Ferencz said. “I had never been in a criminal court before.”

When asked if he recalled the opening statement, Ferencz said, “I called it a plea of humanity to law.”

He remembered correctly.

“The case we present is a plea of humanity to law,” the case starts, as is heard on a clip from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Ferencz came to the courtroom with a specialty in war crimes. He had studied at Harvard Law, then went on to become a private in Gen. George Patton’s Army as it prepared to push into Nazi territory.

“I was assigned to go into the concentration camps as they were being liberated,” he said. “The horrors of the camps can hardly be understood or felt by someone who was not there. The crematory was still going. Bones that were human beings (were) waiting to be burned.”

“Do you still feel it?” Local 10 News asked.

“I never cease to feel it,” Ferencz said.

The Nazi death squads’ efficient documentation of their human extermination would become Ferencz’s evidence against them at Numenberg. Twenty-two defendants were found guilty.

Ferencz’s rooms are filled with books, his writings and his human rights awards. Materially, he lives a modest life.

“My shoes cost $5 … several years ago,” Ferencz said with a laugh.

More telling is the letter of gratitude for his $1 million donation to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. It reads, “The world has not learned the lessons. It’s happening as we speak, all over the world.”
 
Ferencz remains on a mission: to replace war and conflict with an international legal system. He’s a global thinker, a legal giant, and, as Local 10 learned, still a regular at the gym. 

He continues to take on challenges, whether that means push-ups, or striving for peace and human rights. Ferencz does it all with strength, grace and good humor.

--

Online: Visit his website


About the Author: