Ben Ferencz has led an extraordinary life. The last surviving prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials against Nazi leadership, he has worked tirelessly as a champion of international law and human rights.
According to his website biography, when he presided over what the Associated Press called “the biggest murder trial in history,” Benjamin Ferencz was only 27-years-old. “It was his first case,” his website says. Benjamin Ferencz’s story will be featured June 30, 2019 on an episode of 60 Minutes. “From immigrant to lawyer to WWII soldier to Nuremberg prosecutor – the amazing life of Ben Ferencz,” 60 Minutes wrote in its promotion for the segment.
“Nuremberg taught me that creating a world of tolerance and compassion would be a long and arduous task,” Ferencz says on his website. “And I also learned that if we did not devote ourselves to developing effective world law, the same cruel mentality that made the Holocaust possible might one day destroy the entire human race.” Today, Ferencz is 99-years-old.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Benjamin Ferencz Was Born in the Transylvanian Mountains But Grew Up in Hell’s Kitchen
Despite his critical role for the U.S. forces, Ben Ferencz was actually born in Transylvania. “Benjamin B. Ferencz was born in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania in 1920,” his website biography reads. “When he was ten months old his family moved to America. His earliest memories are of his small basement apartment in a Manhattan district – appropriately referred to as ‘Hell’s Kitchen.’ Even at an early age, he felt a deep yearning for universal friendship and worldpeace.”
He went to college at Harvard Law School, graduating in 1943, according to his bio. While at Harvard, he joined the military, serving under General Patton. His website says he served in an “anti-aircraft artillery battalion preparing for the invasion of France.”
He “fought in every campaign in Europe,” according to his website, and he was later tranferred to the War Crimes Branch of the Army that was charged with documenting Nazi atrocities and arresting those responsible.
“Indelibly seared into my memory are the scenes I witnessed while liberating these centers of death and destruction. Camps like Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Dachau are vividly imprinted in my mind’s eye. Even today, when I close my eyes, I witness a deadly vision I can never forget-the crematoria aglow with the fire of burning flesh, the mounds of emaciated corpses stacked like cordwood waiting to be burned…. I had peered into Hell,” Ferencz said, according to his website.
2. Assigned to Prosecute Nazi War Criminals at Nuremberg, Ferencz Was Assigned the ‘Einsatzgruppen Case’
After the war concluded, Ferencz received an honorable discharge as an Army Sergeant of Infantry. His plans were to return to New York and work as a lawyer.
Instead, according to his website, he was asked to join the prosecution table at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials. Ferencz wasn’t the prosecutor in charge of the highest-level Nazis, like Herman Goering. That was Robert M. Jackson.
However, according to Ferencz’s bio, the United States decided to hold a wider swath of Nazis responsible than just Hitler’s highest profile henchmen. That’s where Ferencz came in. The U.S. sent Ferencz and 50 researchers to Berlin “to scour Nazi offices and archives. In their hands lay overwhelming evidence of Nazi genocide by German doctors, lawyers, judges, generals, industrialists, and others who played leading roles in organizing or perpetrating Nazi brutalities,” says his bio.
“Without pity or remorse, the SS murder squads killed every Jewish man, woman, and child they could lay their hands on. Gypsies, communist functionaries, and Soviet intellectuals suffered the same fate. It was tabulated that over a million persons were deliberately murdered by these special ‘action groups,'” according to the bio.
Thus, Ferencz was named “Chief Prosecutor for the United States in The Einsatzgruppen Case,” proseucting 22 people charged with murdering more than a million people. According to his website, he received convictions in each case, with 13 death sentences given.
3. Ferencz Has Accused President Donald Trump of a ‘Crime Against Humanity’
Ben Ferencz has stayed active in public affairs, criticizing U.S. President Donald Trump’s border policies. Referring to family separations, he accused Trump of committing “a crime against humanity.”
According to The Independent, Ferencz made the remark “during a recent interview with outgoing United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein.”
He described how he found it “painful” to hear about the family separations at the U.S. border with Mexico. “I knew the Statue of Liberty. I came under the Statue of Liberty as an immigrant,” said Ferencz during the interview. He added, “The lamp went out when [President Trump] said no immigrants allowed unless they meet the rules that we laid down.”
The UN posted the interview on its website. You can watch it in full here.
4. Ferencz’s Motto Was ‘Never Give Up’ & He Is an Advocate for International Law
According to the United Nations article accompanying the video interview with Ferencz, his motto was “Never give up.” The website calls him “still a tireless, and fearless, fighter for human rights and justice.
After achieving the convictions at Nuremberg, he continued working toward international law.
“He went on to campaign for the establishment of international law, including the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), and to ensure restitution and rehabilitation for the victims of Nazi war crimes,” the UN says.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Ferencz “is one of the most iconic voices in the field of international justice. Having witnessed the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II, Mr. Ferencz has fought tirelessly to build the architecture of international justice around deterrence, prevention, and accountability for mass atrocities.”
5. Ferencz Is a Married Father of Four & Author on Peace Issues
The Holocaust Memorial Museum says on its website that Ferencz has published books on the top of world peace, listing the following publications:
“Defining International Aggression: The Search for World Peace (Oceana Publications, 1975)
An International Criminal Court: A Step Toward World Peace (Oceana Publications, 1980)
Enforcing International Law: A Way to World Peace (Oceana Publications, 1983)
A Common Sense Guide to World Peace (Oceana Publications, 1985)
PlanetHood by Ben Ferencz and Ken Keyes (Mass Market Paperback, 1988).”
According to the museum, Ferencz is married to wife, Gertrude, lives in Florida, and has four grown children. There is a documentary on his life called Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World Of Ben Ferencz, and the film and television rights to his life story have been acquired.