Benjamin Ferencz, the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials, died on Friday at an assisted living facility in Florida. He was 103 years old.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum posted on social media: “Today the world lost a leader in the quest for justice for victims of genocide and related crimes. We mourn the death of Ben Ferencz – the last Nuremberg war crimes prosecutor. At age 27, with no prior trial experience, he secured guilty verdicts against 22 Nazis.”
Today the world lost a leader in the quest for justice for victims of genocide and related crimes. We mourn the death of Ben Ferencz—the last Nuremberg war crimes prosecutor. At age 27, with no prior trial experience, he secured guilty verdicts against 22 Nazis.— US Holocaust Museum (@HolocaustMuseum) April 8, 2023
Ferencz was born in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania in March of 1920. Shortly after that, his family moved to the United States, and he grew up in Manhattan.
After graduating in 1943 with a degree from Harvard Law School, he enlisted in the U.S. military, joining an anti-aircraft artillery battalion. However, because of his legal background, he was transferred to the newly created War Crimes Branch of the Army to gather evidence about the Nazi genocide against Jews, gypsies, and other “undesirables”.
"The office was the Third Army, Judge Advocate headquarters, which kept moving as the front kept moving up," he explained at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in a 1994 interview.
As the army moved forward, taking over German army positions, Ferencz would gather evidence and write up reports, describing which location the U.S. Army troops entered and what they witnessed.
“There the troops encountered the following scene: There were originally 50,000 inmates in the camp, there were 12,000 still alive, 10,000 had been marched out the day before. The camp officers were so-and-so. The crematoria were still going, there were so many bodies stacked in front of the crematoria. I took witness statements from 10 witnesses, they're attached as exhibits one to ten.”
In each report, Ferencz included the names of officers responsible for the war crimes and requested that those names be put in a Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects.
"The goal of my investigation," he explained, "was to describe what had happened, to collect credible evidence admissible in a court of law, which could be used to convict the persons responsible for a known crime under international law. That was the objective, and that's what we did."
After being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, Ferencz returned to New York to practice law. But his experience of gathering evidence against the Nazis made him a prime candidate to become a prosecutor in the Nuremberg war crimes trials, despite his lack of experience as a prosecuting attorney.
Ferencz was only 27 years old when he became chief prosecutor for the U.S. in the Einsatzgruppen case, in which 24 individuals were charged with murdering over one million people. Of the 24 individuals, only 22 stood trial. One committed suicide and the other was declared too sick to stand trial.
Despite his lack of experience, all of the defendants were found guilty, and 13 were sentenced to death, even though Ferencz did not request the death penalty. He later said his intention had been to establish a legal precedent for the "prosecution of war crimes in order to encourage a more humane and secure world."
Following the Nuremberg trials, Ferencz worked to achieve the return of stolen properties and goods to victims and survivors of the Holocaust. He also participated in negotiations for compensation to victims of the Nazi regime.
Beginning in 1970, Ferencz began to examine the issue of international law as a tool achieving world peace. Through his writings, he became a champion for the creation of an international court that could prosecute war crimes of any leader from any nation.
His work was instrumental in establishing the International Criminal Court in the Hague in 2002.
The World Jewish Congress General Counsel Menachem Rosensaft issued a statement following the announcement of Ferencz’s death, which stated: “Ben Ferencz was a giant. He devoted himself to the very end of his long and distinguished career to making sure that the lessons of Nuremberg would become engrained in both international law and the consciousness of society as a whole. He was also a fierce and tireless champion of providing at least a modicum of justice to Holocaust survivors.”
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.