The improbable story of the man who won history’s ‘biggest murder trial’ at Nuremberg
The Washington Post
“I was born in a small village in Transylvania in the Carpathian Mountains,” he says, sitting in the living room of his modest retirement home. “It was a small house with a thatched roof, no running water, no electricity,” and, he jokes, “not even a television.”
Ferencz is 96. His memory astonishes, plucking dates and names from more than half a century past. He’s a tiny man, barely brushing five feet, but a legal giant: the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials and a champion of international criminal law who is about to donate millions to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to promote world peace.
His Nuremberg case, which the Associated Press called “the biggest murder trial in history,” defines him. It involved the Einsatzgruppen, roving extermination squads responsible for more than a million deaths during World War II. Ferencz convinced his fellow attorneys at the postwar tribunals that the Nazi officers who led the squads had to be put on trial. Fine, they said. Ben, you serve as chief prosecutor.
Ferencz was 27.
It was his first trial.
He presented precisely one witness, who certified Nazi documents that recorded the slaughter of Jews, gypsies and other civilians with a banker’s efficiency.
“They were so sure they were going to win! The Germans were great at documentation, thank you very much,” Ferencz says, clapping his hands.
“Death was their tool and life their toy,” he told the judge in the Palace of Justice’s quiet, wood-paneled courtroom. “If these men be immune, then law has lost its meaning, and man must live in fear.”
The prosecution rested after two days. All 22 defendants were found guilty.
Was he nervous? “I’m not the type,” he says. “Fearless Ferencz!” Afterward, though, “my head was bursting. I never had such a headache in my life. It was high tension.” Ferencz had to lie down and skip the party he threw for his staff.
The courtroom’s size limited the number of defendants the prosecutors could try. “There were hundreds of people responsible,” he says. “How many were put on trial? Practically none.”
After the trials, Ferencz fought for restitution for thousands of World War II victims and argued for the creation of the International Criminal Court, which entered into force in 2002, headquartered in The Hague.
“My hope is that people will not be content to look at the past and say never again, and then do nothing,” he says. “So I am taking the measures for preventing it from ever happening again.”
That’s the purpose of his $1 million donation to the Holocaust Museum for the Ferencz International Justice Initiative. The annual gift is renewable for up to $10 million.
Where did he get the money? He saved what he earned from his salary and cases unrelated to war victims. And he appears to have saved almost every dollar.
His retirement community in Delray Beach, a place he does not care for, resembles a 1970s military barracks capped with glazed pink Spanish tile roofs. His home, which he purchased 40 years ago for less than $23,000, is decorated with budget furniture that offers little comfort. Personal flourishes are few. It looks like he moved in yesterday.
“Law not war, that’s my motto. Simple. Three words,” he says. “It causes me pain to see the world as it is. But not to do anything, not to try, that would be a wrong.”
“The story is basically the same for every camp,” he says. “Inmates being worked to death at every camp. Conditions absolutely horrible and indescribable, unforgettable. Guards fleeing.”
Ferencz has shared his stories for seven decades. “I saw the inmates beat up a guy they captured and burn him alive,” Ferencz says of a German guard. “Slowly. I saw it.”
He stops. His eyes pool with tears and a linen handkerchief emerges from his pinstriped pocket.
“Excuse me,” he says, “but I still see it. Could I have probably stopped it? No. Did I try? No. Should I have tried? No. You try being there.”
Ferencz spends his days in a narrow office overlooking a man-made lagoon and a flock of white ibises. At his desk, crafted from a slab of plywood supported by filing cabinets, he curses the computer for failing to obey his commands. “It must be an anti- Semite,” he says.
A New Yorker most of his life, Ferencz has another home in New Rochelle, where he raised four children. He has lived long enough to see them retire.
Ferencz is here, in the punishing late summer heat and humidity, only because Gertrude, his wife of 70 years, is in failing health and prefers Florida. Her problem? “She’s old!”
He lived simply, invested wisely and sat on those investments for decades. “I don’t gamble. I like plain food,” he says, pulling at his navy suspenders. “I like simple things.” The slippers he’s wearing, purchased for $5, are his fancy pair. A copy of the Kama Sutra winks from a bookshelf thick with tomes on international criminal law. He’s a bit of a flirt. His indulgence is talk. For four hours he talks.
“I came into the world a poor boy. I want to go out of this world a poor boy,” he says. “My resolve is to give it all back in gratitude for the opportunity I’ve had in the United States. I have been trying with my life, ever since I can remember, to try and create a more peaceful and humane world. And I want the money to go for that purpose. I realize it will not happen in my lifetime, because I’m trying to reverse thousands of years of tradition and glorification of war.”
The recipient of Ferencz’s largesse is the Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. “We’re planning to make sure the fight he has waged his whole life continues after he is gone. Ben has seen absolutely the worst of humanity,” says Cameron Hudson, director of the center. “He’s seen it up close, and to have this kind of faith in humanity, that we can overcome our most base impulses, is amazing.”
Ferencz has lived to see many more atrocities — Rwanda, Sudan, Syria. Still, he believes “we can reverse the glorification of war. We can change hearts and minds and hold individuals accountable.”
He remains frustrated that despots and terrorists are killed instead of tried in criminal courts to deter further aggression. He would have brought Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden to trial in international court.
But he is also optimistic about civilization’s advances. “I have also lived through unbelievable change, that a woman is running for president, or that a man can marry a man — enormous, inconceivable transformations in my lifetime,” he says.
This is how Ferencz speaks, alternating between speeches about global peace and what he calls “Benny stories,” tales worthy of Sholem Aleichem if Aleichem had been raised in a Hell’s Kitchen cellar and gone to Harvard Law.The family moved to the United States when Ben was 10 months old. Ferencz’s father was a janitor who graduated to house painting. His parents were in an arranged family marriage — they were cousins — and later divorced. Crime was the neighborhood’s chief industry. An uncle told him, “You’ll either be a good lawyer or a good crook.” Ferencz attended City College, where bright immigrants went free in the 1930s. “I didn’t know any lawyers. I wanted to go to the best school,” he says.
Someone mentioned Harvard. Okay, Ferencz said, Harvard it is.
He wanted the best as insurance and protection, he says, to command respect. “Because I was very short. I was very small. Five-foot-two at the height of my height,” he says. “It kept me out of the Air Force. I wanted to be a pilot. I couldn’t reach the pedals. But, by chance, I had a very good education.”
Harvard, where he began his lifelong study of war crimes, got him to Nuremberg, but not before he served as a grunt in Patton’s army.
He enlisted. “In their typical 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,” he says. “Why? Because I was a Harvard man. I was never high and mighty. They didn’t care. They were a bunch of idiots.”
His low rank had its privileges. On bathtub duty, he claims, he saw Marlene Dietrich naked. As a member of Patton’s forces, he was at Normandy, broke though the Maginot and Siegfried lines, crossed the Rhine at Remagen, and took part in the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne.
He was awarded five battle stars, though not, he argues, for bravery. “I was hiding under whatever truck or tank I could get under,” he says. “My weapon was a typewriter.”
After his return to the States and Gertrude, Ferencz was recruited for Nuremberg. Telford Taylor, his eventual boss, noted that his Army files indicated that he was occasionally insubordinate.
“That’s not correct, sir. I am not occasionally insubordinate,” Ferencz told his future law partner. “I am usually insubordinate. I don’t take orders that I know are stupid or illegal.”
“It’s possible to take the most fundamental, strongly held ideas and change them. What makes people change? Sometimes fear, sometimes reason, sometimes sentiment,” he says. “You have to teach people to be more tolerant, to be more compassionate, to compromise. It takes courage. Crimes are committed by individuals, not movements, and you have to hold the people responsible in courts.”
Ferencz has been awarded a trove of medals, including the French Legion of Honor, Germany’s military medal of honor and Holland’s Erasmus Prize. He doesn’t want to see the Holocaust Museum “just be a historical archive. It has to do something, to build on the suffering to avoid any in the future.” In pursuit of peace and more teaching of international criminal law, he is working with Harvard and Cardozo law schools.
Next year marks the 70th anniversary of the Einsatzgruppen trial at Nuremberg. The last remaining prosecutor could be excused for watching a baseball game or two, or reading a mystery.
Ferencz does none of that. He performs 100 push-ups each morning, swims in his retirement community pool, cares for Gertrude at night. Otherwise, he works at his makeshift desk, cursing the computer.
Fun? Ferencz has no time for fun.
“I am too busy,” he says, “trying to save the world.”