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96-Year-Old Ben Ferencz Tried Nazi Mass Murderers And Still Dreams About World Peace

Sep 30, 2016
Originally published on December 12, 2016 9:33 pm

We first published this story on September 28, 2016. We're bringing it back now because Benjamin Ferencz will speak tomorrow (Tuesday, Dec. 13) in Boca Raton at a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum public program at B'nai Torah Congregation. The discussion, A Relentless Pursuit: Bringing Holocaust Perpetrators to Justice, is free, but registration is required. Click here to find out more information or call 561-995-6773.

The prosecutor in one of the biggest murder trials in history lives now in a small bungalow with faded roof in a senior community in Delray Beach. 

Ben Ferencz was just 27 years old when in 1947 he became the chief prosecutor in one of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials after World War II. Now he is 96 years old and the only one of those prosecutors still alive.

Ferencz is  small, slim and very energetic. He says he works out every day at the gym of the complex. He and his wife Gertrude bought the house here decades ago. "It was dead cheap back then," he says.

Ben and his wife  have been married  for over 70 years  “without a quarrel,” he insists. Gertrude Ferencz is a few months older than her husband. Their four kids have reached the age of pensioners themselves now.  

"We used to come to Florida as snowbirds," he says. They lived for many years in New Rochelle, New York, but now they are permanently in Florida. “My wife has dementia, she can’t be moved and misses me when I’m away,” he says. “She has supported me all my life, lived many years with me in Germany. Now it’s payback time”.

And so Ben Ferencz is turning down most of the requests he is getting from all over the world to speak at conferences and universities about his life.

He points to a black and white picture on the wall. It shows a young man in a courtroom. “That’s me at the Nuremberg trial. I was the prosecutor in the biggest murder trial in  human history," he explains. There is also a poster of a documentary made by a German director last year. It's called "A Man Can Make A Difference." Ben Ferencz laughs and says: "And that guy is me, an immigrant boy from Eastern Europe."

In the back of the bungalow, he has a small study with a computer overlooking a lake. From here, Ferencz communicates  with the world, writing articles, sharing his expertise on international law. “It’s an anti-Semitic computer; it never does what I want,” he says and winks.

Ben Ferenzc was born in 1920 in a village in the Carpathian Mountains in Eastern Europe. He is Jewish and his family immigrated to the United States to escape poverty and anti-Semitism. He grew up in Hell’s Kitchen in New York City, which back then was a crime-ridden neighborhood.

“It was called Hell’s Kitchen because it was hell, ”  says Ferencz. "I saw many crimes, but never lawyers."

He later graduated from Harvard Law School. “I have no doubt that my earliest memories and experiences had an influence in sending me on a career to prevent crime."

After  the attack on Pearl Harbor, he signed up to fight in the Second World War.  Just after the war, he was assigned to collect evidence in the concentration camps in Europe. “I don’t like to speak about the inhumane things I saw,” he says. His voice for the first time cracks and his eyes fill with tears.

Later he was sent back to Berlin to help prepare for the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials in which some of the Germans responsible for war crimes were punished. It was thanks to him that the trial against the so-called Einsatzgruppen – German for action groups – came about.

These squads joined the German army when they invaded the Soviet Union. “Their assignment was to kill – without pity or remorse - every single Jew they could lay their hands on, every man, woman or child.”

Ben Ferencz says the Einsatzgruppen killed over 1 million people. He found their top secret reports with dates and other details about the massacres. “The Nazis were so sure they would win the war they kept record of all their atrocities. I had their daily reports and knew exactly, which unit was in charge, how many Jews they killed and who the commanding officer was,” he says. 

One of the massacres committed by the Einsatzgruppen was the one at Babi Yar  on Sept. 29, 1941. Within two days they shot more than 30,000  Jews in the ravine Babi Yar close to Kiev, which then belonged to the Soviet Union.

The young Ben Ferencz was named chief prosecutor and this trial against the Einsatzgruppen at Nuremberg was his first trial. He says he was appointed because he insisted this trial, which hadn't been planned, had to take place, even though there was no budget or manpower for it.

Since he couldn’t try all of the roughly 3,000 members of the Einsatzgruppen, he went after the  22 leading officers. All of them were found guilty; some were sentenced to death.

He didn’t call for the death penalty, but he says it was justified. “It wasn’t about vengeance. In the contrary it was a cry to avoid vengeance and to substitute it with the rule of law.”

Ben Ferencz says that ever since the Nuremberg trials he has spent his life trying to prevent war.  “I have learned that a war can make mass murderers out of otherwise decent people. War is the supreme international crime. It incorporates all other crimes.”

These days he is hailed as one of the founding fathers of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the principal judicial body of the United Nations at The Hague, the Netherlands. The first case it tried was about child soldiers, and Ben Ferencz gave the closing statement for the prosecution. He was 92.

He deeply regrets that out of all countries the U.S. doesn’t recognize the ICJ. Wars shouldn’t be glorified, but recognized as what they are, he says. “Wars are contemptible, cruel, mean and rotten and stupid – it’s almost unbelievable that human beings would accept such a system.”

He says with more power, the International Court of Justice could help replace all war -- with law. His business card actually says: “Law, not war.”

Recently,  he donated 1 million U.S. dollars to the the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, specifically to the museum’s Genocide Prevention Center. The annual gift is renewable for up to $10 million.

“I got lucky on the stock market and lived very modest,” he says, explaining his wealth. “And now I want to make sure that I  will leave the world as I came into it – as a pauper.”

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