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Lawmakers seek to award Benjamin Ferencz the Congressional Gold Medal

U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel announced on Monday in Palm Beach County that she is leading an effort to honor the last living member of the Nuremberg Trials’ prosecutorial team with the Congressional Gold Medal.

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. – U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel announced on Monday in Palm Beach County that she is leading an effort to honor the last living member of the Nuremberg Trials’ prosecutorial team with the Congressional Gold Medal.

Frankel said she has the support of a bipartisan group of lawmakers including U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson, Maria Elvira Salazar, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ted Deutch to award Benjamin Ferencz the medal.

Ferencz, who lives in a retirement community in Delray Beach, said he devoted most of his life to advancing the idea that international law can prevent wars.

“You can’t go around killing everybody because you don’t agree with them ... treat other human beings as human beings, not like animals,” Ferencz said.

Ferencz was born on March 11, 1920 in Soncuta-Mare in Romania, and he was a baby when his family emigrated to New York. He graduated from Harvard’s law school in 1943. 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. Ferencz was a sergeant when the U.S. Army honorably discharged him and he returned to New York.

“Indelibly seared into my memory are the scenes I witnessed while liberating these centers of death and destruction,” Ferencz wrote in his 1988 book “Planethood: The Key To Your Future.”

U.S. Army Gen. Telford Taylor recruited Ferencz to join a research team to review evidence 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.

Benjamin Ferencz shared this identification with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide's Ferencz International Justice Initiative. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’)

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 on Sept. 15, 1947.

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 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 has led a remarkable life dedicated to the pursuit of justice,” Frankel said in a statement.He is a treasure to the Palm Beach County and hero to our global Jewish community.”

About the Authors:

The Emmy Award-winning journalist joined the Local 10 News team in 2013. She wrote for the Miami Herald for more than 9 years and won a Green Eyeshade Award.

Saira Anwer joined the Local 10 News team in July 2018. Saira is two-time Emmy-nominated reporter and comes to South Florida from Madison, Wisconsin, where she was working as a reporter and anchor.