DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – Benjamin Ferencz, the last living member of the Nuremberg Trials’ prosecutorial team, is a nominee for the Congressional Gold Medal.
At his small apartment in a retirement community in Delray Beach, Ferencz exercises regularly. He can still recite by memory his opening statement from Sept. 15, 1947.
“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,” Ferencz said during an exclusive interview in 2016.
He was born on March 11, 1920 in Soncuta-Mare in Romania’s Transylvania region, and he was a baby when his Jewish family emigrated to New York. In 1943, he graduated from Harvard’s law school on a merit scholarship.
“My family met persecution and poverty in Transylvania... We came to New York. We were immigrants, no money, no language,” he said.
During World War II, he landed in Normandy and survived the Battle of the Bulge. Soon after, he was assigned to the U.S. Army’s war crimes branch and he helped to collect evidence at Buchenwald, Dachau, and Mauthausen.
“I was assigned to go into the concentration camps as they were being liberated. The horrors of the camps can hardly be understood or felt by someone who was not there. The crematorial was still going. Bones pact,” he said adding he will never forget.
Ferencz was a sergeant when the U.S. Army honorably discharged him and he returned to New York. U.S. Army Gen. Telford Taylor recruited Ferencz to join an evidence research team in Berlin. Ferencz came across reports on the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units of ideological fighters who followed the German Army to commit mass murder.
As the Nuremberg Trials were ongoing, Ferencz told Taylor he had enough evidence for a new trial. Prosecutors were so busy that Taylor appointed him to lead the case. He would go on to make history as the U.S. chief prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen case, the 9th of the 12 Nuremberg Trials.
Ferencz, who is Jewish, was just 27 years old when he faced his first courtroom trial, as the world was watching. The indictment consisted of three counts: Crimes against humanity, murder and ill-treatment of prisoners of war, and membership of an illegal organization.
Ferencz’s exhibits included official records of the Einsatzgruppen that documented the mass murder of Jews, Communists, Gypsies, the disabled, mental health patients, and other groups. The exhibits included evidence of a massacre of more than 33,000, including children, in the Babi Yar ravine near the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.
“It is with sorrow and with hope that we here disclose the deliberate slaughter of more than a million innocent and defenseless men, women, and children. This was the tragic fulfillment of a program of intolerance and arrogance,” Ferencz said during his opening statement.
The Associated Press referred to his case as “the biggest murder trial in history” and it resulted in the conviction of 22 Nazi officers. Ferencz’s lead defendant was Otto Ohlendorf, an economist accused of leading Nazi Germany’s Einsatzgruppen D. He was among the 13 who were sentenced to death by hanging.
Ferencz’s published “Defining International Aggression-The Search for World Peace” in 1975, “An International Criminal Court: A Step Toward World Peace” in 1980, “Enforcing International Law: A Way to World Peace” in 1983, and “A Common Sense Guide to World Peace” in 1985.
While he was an adjunct professor of international law at Pace University in New York, he also published “World Security for the 21st Century” in 1991, and “New Legal Foundations for Global Survival: Security Through the Security Council” in 1994.
His “Less Than Slaves: Jewish Forced Labor and the Quest for Compensation” was published in 2002 and he co-authored “The Prosecutor and the Judge” in 2009. He was awarded Harvard Law School’s highest honor, the Medal of Freedom, in 2014.
In 2019, he was the subject of “Prosecuting Evil,” a documentary released worldwide, and Gertrude Ferencz, his high school sweetheart, his wife since 1976, and the mother of his four children, died. Last year, he published “Parting Words,” a biography with lessons to inspire others to live “a remarkable life.”
Ferencz lives simply and he treasures a letter that he received from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum after he donated $1 million. He has seen progress with the development of the International Criminal Court, and he hopes more will be done with his “law and not war” message.
“The world has not learned the lessons. It’s happening as we speak all over the world,” Ferencz said.
Earlier this year, the U.S. called out genocide and atrocities happening in six countries: Myanmar, also known as Burma, China, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, and South Sudan.
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