Life lessons in justice and humanity

NUREMBERG PROSECUTOR Ben Ferencz (left) with Gabe Nierman, the author’s son.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
NUREMBERG PROSECUTOR Ben Ferencz (left) with Gabe Nierman, the author’s son.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is not every day that you have breakfast with a giant, especially one who stands under five feet tall. But that is exactly what my son and I experienced recently when we had the opportunity of a lifetime to share a morning with Benjamin Ferencz.
Ben Ferencz is not just a hero of the Jewish people, but of all humanity. Indeed, all who champion the rule of law and feel compelled to fulfill the biblical mandate to pursue justice are natural adherents of the philosophy that has formed the foundation of Ben’s personal and professional life: “Law not war.”
The legendary last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, Ben made his mark on history when he successfully secured courtroom convictions against 22 Nazi perpetrators of crimes against humanity. As the world first began coming to grips with the murder of millions of innocents, Ben Ferencz ensured that justice was delivered, and that these men were held accountable for their deplorable actions.
At that time, Ben was just 27 years old. But in the many decades since, he has continued to play a pivotal role in fighting genocide and appealing for global justice.
Imagine being in Ben’s shoes during that unprecedented moment in history. A young Jewish man, literally and figuratively standing up against the unspeakable evil of Nazism as the chief prosecutor for the United States in the Einsatz‎gruppen case. His courage and heroism was and is truly remarkable.
Today, Ben is 100 years young and as sharp as ever. Ben is spry, brilliant, and able to recall details without missing a beat, maintaining a laser-sharp focus and dedicating his work every day toward making the world more just.
To trace Ben’s century-old footsteps is beyond inspiring. Born into a poor home in Hell’s Kitchen, Ben earned a scholarship to Harvard Law School and later joined the US Army. During his military service, Ben bore witness to mankind’s greatest atrocities as he shouldered the unenviable responsibility of documenting the dark tragedies of the Holocaust’s concentration camps as they were liberated.
That jarring experience would shape Ben’s life’s work. Several years ago, he furthered his contribution to post-war justice by partnering with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide to establish the Ferencz International Justice Initiative. He also donated his personal archives to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which will safeguard them for coming generations.
THE DRAMATIC story of Ben’s life and accomplishments is beautifully captured in a thoughtful documentary titled Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz. This moving film should be mandatory viewing for all parents committed to educating their children about the lessons of the Holocaust, which are just as important today as they were 75 years ago.
Which is precisely why I wanted my own son Gabe, just weeks before he becomes bar mitzvah, to meet and learn from Ben Ferencz.
Watching Gabe interview Ben was a touching experience. As they sat facing each other across the breakfast table, the two covered a range of topics. Gabe ran through his list of prepared questions, clearly spellbound by Ben’s responses. Ben was engaging and inspirational as he imparted his life’s lessons to a boy about to step forward and join the Jewish community as a man.
Looking on misty-eyed, I felt a palpable sense that this was l’dor v’dor (from generation to generation) in its purest form as Ben implored Gabe to unconditionally pursue justice and treat his fellow men and women with compassion and dignity.
The sense of passing down vital lessons in humanity from one generation to the next was made all the more poignant by the presence of Ben’s son Don Ferencz. Don, in his own right, is a highly accomplished and deeply respected lawyer and human rights advocate who continues to carry the torch of justice forward, educating the next generation as a law professor and founder of the Global Institute for the Prevention of Aggression.
That morning, my son and I were truly privileged to observe and benefit from the Ferencz family brilliance. Upon his return home, Gabe edited a brief video to share highlights of the interview with his class, and he updated his bar mitzvah speech to include key lessons he learned from Ben.
It could hardly be more fitting, given that Gabe’s bar mitzvah portion is Yitro, which recounts the giving of the 10 Commandments, and emphasizes the vital role laws play in providing a moral compass for our lives.
Ben and Don Ferencz, through the work started by the father and carried forward by the son, are truly fulfilling the Torah’s mandate: Tzedek, tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice shall you pursue.