Ben Ferencz, last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, dead at 103

Ferencz, a Jew who grew up in New York, was able to present the entirety of his case in just two court sessions. All defendants were found guilty.

Ben Ferencz as a young man (photo credit: BENJAMIN FERENCZ)
Ben Ferencz as a young man
(photo credit: BENJAMIN FERENCZ)

"It is with sorrow and with hope that we here disclose the deliberate slaughter of more than a million innocent and defenseless men, women, and children," said 27-year-old Ben Ferencz in his opening statements as Chief Prosecutor during the ninth Nuremberg trial -the Einsatzgruppen trial- in 1947. 

Benjamin Berell Ferencz (known as Ben) passed away on Friday at the age of 103.  

"Today the world lost a leader in the quest for justice for victims of genocide and related crimes," wrote the US Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in a Saturday tweet. "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."

Ferencz was born "in a little village which doesn't appear on any map in Transylvania," in 1920 according to his own 1994 account in an interview recorded by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. He then explained that his exact date of birth was not known: "Whether it was [March] 11th or the 13th or the 15th has been subject to serious debate. And that's simply because there were no records kept." He was born to Jewish parents and moved to America with his family as an infant, according to Ferencz's own website, 

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1943, he joined the US Army and fought, according to his website, in most of the major European campaigns. According to a statement from the World Jewish Congress, he was witness to the horrors of newly-liberated concentration camps. At Buchenwald, he told the WJC, “I saw crematoria still going. The bodies starved, lying dying, on the ground. I've seen the horrors of war more than can be adequately described.”

Attorneys Bergold and Aschenauer with Prosecutor Ferencz at the Einsatzgruppen Trial (credit: WIKIMEDIA)Attorneys Bergold and Aschenauer with Prosecutor Ferencz at the Einsatzgruppen Trial (credit: WIKIMEDIA)

Gathering evidence against Nazi war criminals 

He initially joined an anti-aircraft artillery battalion, according to the USHMM, but was transferred to the war crimes investigation branch of the US Army as the war came to a close.  

Charged with gathering evidence against Nazi war criminals, Ferencz traveled to several Nazi offices and concentration camps.

"The office was the Third Army, Judge Advocate headquarters, which kept moving as the front kept moving up," he explained in a 1994 interview recorded in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection. "[We] usually took over a German Kaserne [barracks] and we had a room and a desk and a typewriter. So I would get back there with whatever notes I had, whatever documents I had, and write up a report."

The reports would follow a similar formula to each other: "'On certain date US army troops entered the camps of X'--let's assume Mauthausen, for example. '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.'"

Ferencz would conclude the report by naming the individuals responsible for the crimes in question, and requesting that they be added to the 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."

Prosecuting the Nazi SS Einsatzgruppen 

Shortly after the war ended in 1945, Ferencz was tapped to be a prosecutor for the Nuremberg war crimes trials. He became Chief Prosecutor for the United States in The Einsatzgruppen Case, in which 22 defendants were charged with murdering over a million people

At 27 years old, Einsatzgruppen was his first case worked as a lawyer. He led the prosecution of 22 members of the Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS) paramilitary death squads, the Einsatzgruppen (the original number was 24 - one was declared too sick to stand trial and the other took his own life). According to the USHMM, during the entire five-month-long trial, Ferencz called no witnesses. He built his case on the SS's own reports of Einsatzgruppen mass shootings. 

"Their own reports will show that the slaughter committed by these defendants was dictated, not by military necessity, but by that supreme perversion of thought, the Nazi theory of the master race," said Ferencz in his opening statements.

Ferencz was able to present the entirety of his case in just two court sessions. The remainder of the months-long trial was dedicated to the defendants' arguments. 

The former SS commanders were indicted on three charges: crimes against humanity, war crimes and membership in organizations declared criminal by the International Military Tribunal. All defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges but were found guilty nonetheless. Of the 22, twenty were found guilty of all three charges and the remaining two were only found guilty of being SS members. 

"The case we present is a plea of humanity to law," said Ferencz during the trial. 

14 of the defendants were sentenced to death, two were sentenced to life in prison, and five received 10-20 years in prison. One was released with time served, according to the USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia. 

Life after the Nuremberg trials 

For the rest of his life after Nuremberg, Ferencz was a lawyer for Holocaust survivors, wrote  Prof. John Q. Barrett, a scholar specializing in the Nuremberg trials. Ferencz was also a law teacher, a writer, and a world-renowned lecturer among many other things. Barrett emphasized that Ferenzc, above all, was an advocate for "peace through law, and a moral exemplar to millions."

“Nuremberg taught me that creating a world of tolerance and compassion would be a long and arduous task," Ferencz said of his debut prosecutorial work, according to the WJC. “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.”