NEW YORK – Some 70 years ago, when then 27-year-old Harvard-educated lawyer Benjamin Ferencz walked into the courtroom at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, he was very calm.
It was September 1947, and nothing about prosecuting 22 members of the Nazi Einsatzgruppen death squads, accused of murdering more than a million people, was causing Ferencz any anxiety. The ninth of the 12 historical Nuremberg trials, however, was only his first case.
“I was not nervous at all,” he tells The Jerusalem Post.
“I hadn’t murdered anybody. They were nervous, the defendants.”
Among the 22 defendants Ferencz prosecuted was Otto Ohlendorf, the commanding officer of Einsatzgruppe D, which perpetrated mass murder in Moldova, south Ukraine, the Crimea and, during 1942, the north Caucasus.
Ohlendorf was the chief defendant in the trial.
“I was not intimidated by either high-ranking mass murderers or criminals,” Ferencz says. “It was not a sentiment which I had. I was not afraid, I wasn’t nervous. But I did want to do something that could have more meaning than just the trial of these 22 guys.”
Already then, as he made his opening statement in front of the judges, Ferencz vowed to make it his personal mandate to ensure that a genocide of this magnitude never happened again.
“Vengeance is not out goal, nor do we seek merely a just retribution,” Ferencz said in his 1947 remarks. “We ask this court to affirm by international penal action man’s right to live in peace and dignity, regardless of his race or creed. The case we present is a plea of humanity to law.”
When the verdicts came in, all 22 Nazis were found guilty, and 13 of them were sentenced to death by hanging.
The scene, Ferencz says, was “very dramatic.”
“The defendants were held in the prison below the courthouse. They came up to the courtroom in a little lift, which opened up directly into the courtroom, into the defendant’s box,” he says.
“The judge said, ‘Dr. Otto Ohlendorf, for the crimes of which you have been convicted, this court sentences you to death by hanging,’ and the defendant would just take the earphones off, nod politely to the judge, step back into the lift, the doors would close, and he would drop down and disappear as though he dropped to hell,” Ferencz recounts.
The process was repeated 13 times. “Next! Death by hanging. Boom, down. Death by hanging. Boom, down. Death by hanging. Boom, down,” Ferencz recalls. “The way I felt was as if someone had hit me in the head with a hammer 13 times. It was an unforgettable experience.”
But the young prosecutor, who remained calm, focused, and never saw himself in historical terms, knew he had only won a battle and not the war itself.
Ever since, Ferencz, who at 96 years of age is the last living Nuremberg prosecutor, has dedicated his life to preventing genocide through strengthening international justice.
After the trials, Ferencz applied his legal expertise to securing restitution for Holocaust survivors. He also worked to recover stolen Jewish properties, businesses, art and religious objects and return them to their rightful owners.
In 1970, with the war in Vietnam, Ferencz decided to gradually withdraw from the private practice of law and dedicate himself to studying and writing about world peace. He became an advocate for the establishment of an international rule of law and an international criminal court. Ferencz was later active in establishing the ICC.
As October 1 of this year marked the 70th anniversary of the first verdicts in the Nuremberg trials, Ferencz announced that he would be donating $1 million to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, on an annually renewable basis. The donation will go to the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide and serve to establish the Ben Ferencz International Justice Initiative, which seeks to “strengthen the rule of law for atrocity prevention and response, promote justice and accountability in countries where genocidal crimes have been committed, and foster research and policy aimed at using international justice to deter, prevent and respond to mass atrocities.”
This gift is the latest contribution that Ferencz has made to the museum over decades. He also donated his personal archives, one of the largest collections of documents the institution has. It includes diaries, documents from his war crimes work, the Einsatzgruppen trial and his family history.
Ferencz’s donation was made through the Planethood Foundation, which is part of the museum’s $540 million Never Again: What You Do Matters campaign.
“I wanted to show appreciation to the United States for the opportunity they gave me as a poor immigrant boy from Transylvania by giving back everything that I have before I leave,” he explains. “I am now in my 97th year, and I found myself with some money left over, so I made a donation to the Holocaust Museum to carry on the work that they are doing to prevent genocide, which is what I have been trying to do myself, and I hope it will be a crucial partnership.”
From a young age, even before his legal debut in Nuremberg, Ferencz had been interested in crime prevention, having immigrated to the US and growing up in poverty in Hell’s Kitchen, the then high-density crime area of New York City.
His interest became stronger when he arrived on the shores of Normandy with the American troops, helping to liberate the Nazi concentration camps in 1945.
“The army was ordered to set up war crime trials, and my name had been forwarded from Washington because I had done the research for a professor at Harvard for a book on war crimes,” he says. “They assigned me to go into the concentration camps as they were being liberated and collect the evidence of the crimes so that the criminals could be brought to account, and that’s what I did.”
The first camp Ferencz went into was Buchenwald.
“Dead bodies lying all around, you can’t tell if they’re dead or alive. Everybody is running in different directions, the SS are trying to escape, the inmates trying to stay alive,” he describes. “The people who were not dead were just lying there, their eyes crying out to you to come and help them.”
The chaos at Buchenwald, Ferencz says, was “unimaginable to a rational human mind and really incomprehensible if you haven’t lived through it or seen it. The inmates themselves didn’t have as good a perspective as I had because I had captured the plans for the killings, I knew the murderers themselves, I heard their stories, I saw the victims, and I had a comprehensive view of how that happens. And it could happen anywhere. It happens everywhere,” he says.
Yet in the prosecution of 22 of the Nazi executioners, Ferencz says he had no feelings of vengeance or outrage.
“War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people,” he says. “My defendants were not villains with horns and big teeth. They were all selected by me on the basis of their education and their ranks – I had many PhDs and many generals. In ordinary times, they would have been respected citizens. Instead, without any remorse whatsoever, they murdered thousands of Jewish children one shot at a time.”
His entire life, Ferencz has chosen to place his faith in the law. “Law, not war” has been his motto for decades.
“It’s clear that law does not eliminate all crime. But if you didn’t have any criminal law, what would your cities look like? Everyone would become a murderer, a thief, a rapist and a robber,” he says. “The idea of being held accountable in a court of law and punished for your crimes has some deterrent effect.”
Nevertheless, Ferencz acknowledges that we have not yet developed the mechanisms needed to create a peaceful world.
“What we do now, when the heads of state are unable to agree, is send young people out to kill other young people they don’t even know, who may not have done any harm to anyone, and they kill each other until they get tired of killing each other; then each one declares a victory, they go home and rest, and after a while they start again,” he says. “That is the current system under which you live and under which I live. Can you imagine anything more cruel and more stupid than that? I cannot.”
The law, he says, can replace violence. But while progress has been made since 1947, Ferencz feels that the international legal system still doesn’t function properly.
“We need laws and courts and enforcement, and we are not enforcing any of it because we haven’t done what we are supposed to do in the UN charter. It called for disarmament, it called for an international military force, it called for decisions by an unbiased Security Council,” he says. “All those things have been betrayed, all those hopes. The result is: you’ve got the world as you have it.”
Ferencz adds, “We have not yet sufficiently accepted the idea that law is better than war. But if you think about it, it’s so obviously true that I’m amazed we still go about many of the cruelties we do today.”
By making a donation to the US Holocaust Museum, Ferencz hopes that the idea of “Law, not war” will live on after him.
“It’s not merely a question of not forgetting; you have to take steps to prevent it from happening again, otherwise they have died in vain,” he explains.
“In the big order of things, people get killed, and the people who remember them are those who were close to them, and it’s a terrible thing. It’s a horrible thing, and it will take a long time to heal it. But until we learn compassion and understanding and willingness to compromise, it won’t change. It takes courage today not to be discouraged,” he says.
“You cannot kill an ideology with a gun; you have to change the thinking of their people, their hearts and minds,” Ferencz points out. “That begins at home, in the religious schools, in the public schools. Instead of glorifying it as we have for thousands of years of killing and warfare, we have to reverse that thinking, and it can’t be done quickly and easily.”
Ferencz adds, “There is no quick evolution, and there is no painless revolution. These things have a price to pay, and I’m sorry to say that your generation will pay. Mine has already paid, I have seen the price. Many people have learned, but they shouldn’t forget. If they forget, they’ll repeat it. I hope my actions will serve as a model and perhaps an inspiration.”