The Heroic Life of Benjamin Ferencz

At only 5’2”, Ben Ferencz was not an imposing figure. But during the course of his life, he became a giant in the areas of international criminal law, in prosecuting war crimes, and in the quest for world peace. He died earlier this month (4/7/23) in an assisted living facility in Boynton Beach, FL. He was 103.

Ferencz was born in the Transylvania region of Hungary in 1920. A few months after his birth, at the conclusion of World War I, Transylvania was annexed into Romania. His parents fled Romania and the persecution Hungarian Jews faced at the hands of the Romanian government. They  made it to the United States and settled on the lower east side of Manhattan in New York City. After high school, Ferencz attended City College of New York and eventually attended Harvard Law School, where he studied under Sheldon Glueck, who was researching a book on war crimes. His association with Glueck and the war crimes research would have a profound and long-lasting influence on the rest of his life.

After graduating from Harvard in 1943, Ferencz joined the Army and was assigned to Camp Davis in North Carolina as a typist. Ferencz didn’t know how to type or fire a rifle, so he was given the duty of cleaning latrines. With some training, he was eventually assigned to the 115th AAA Gun Battalion, anti-aircraft artillery unit. He landed on the beach at Normandy, and went on to fight in the fated Battle of the Bulge.

In 1945, near the end of World War II, Ferencz was assigned to the headquarters of General George S. Patton’s Third Army, and was tasked with setting up a war crimes branch. It was in this job that he witnessed firsthand the atrocities committed by the Nazis on Jews and other “undesirables” in the concentration camps of Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Dachau. Ferencz collected evidence at each of these camps that was later used to convict Nazi war criminals.

Years later, when discussing his experience in the concentration camps, Ferencz said, “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.”

After the war, when he left Germany, Ferencz vowed never to return, the memory of what he had seen haunted him so badly. But he had only been back in the states for a few months when the Army reached out to him and asked him to return as a civilian to work on prosecuting war criminals. Big name Nazis like Hermann Goring and Rudolf Hess had already been prosecuted, and Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union left it up to the United States to prosecute the lower ranking war criminals. Ferencz worked under Brig. Gen. Telford Taylor, helping Taylor investigate and prepare cases against Nazi doctors who had experimented on concentration camp inmates, as well as industrialists who availed themselves of slave labor from the camps.

It was during these investigations that Ferencz discovered previously secret documents from the Einsatzgruppen (Action Groups). The Einsatzgruppen were tasked with following the Nazi Army as it invaded the Soviet Union, and kill all the Jews, gypsys, gays, and communists they could find. The reports were detailed documentation of how the Einsatzgruppen had gone from town-to-town rounding up the “undesirables” and executing them. One such document, later labeled exhibit 179 at trial, detailed how, in Kyiv, troops summoned all Jews to present themselves to the Nazis. About 34,000 people responded. The Nazis stripped them of their clothing and took anything of value from them, then spent the next several days executing every single one of them.

As part of the agreement that ended the war, Germany was bifurcated, with Russia having control of the eastern part of the country and the United States having control of the western half. The U.S. wanted to rebuild West Germany, if for no other reason than to have a foothold in Europe that would be a barrier to further expansion by the Russians, who despite being a partner with the U.S. in World War II, had become a Cold War rival. The war crimes trials were dragging on, and were creating friction between the U.S. and West Germany. Taylor was under pressure from his superiors to conclude the trials so the United States and West German could move forward.

The push to conclude the trials angered Ferencz. He had found documents—literal murder receipts—that needed to lead to prosecutions. Yet, the U.S. was seemingly willing to turn a blind eye in order to move forward. Ferencz petitioned Taylor not to allow the murders of millions of innocent people to go unanswered. Taylor sympathized, but the pressure to wrap up the trials was mounting. Finally, he told Ferencz, who had never prosecuted a case in his life, that if he could organize the trials while doing his other duties, he could move forward with the prosecutions. Ferencz had suddenly gone from an investigator to lead prosecutor of Nazi war criminals.

One of the first challenges Ferencz faced was choosing who to prosecute. Based on the documents he had at his disposal, he literally could have charged thousands of former Nazis. There wasn’t enough time or courtroom space to prosecute everyone. Ferencz chose to focus on those that had the highest rank in the Nazi military, as well as the most education.

At trial, Ferencz called no witnesses. Instead, he relied on the treasure trove of Einsatzgruppen reports as his evidence. The defendants claimed simultaneously that the documents were fake and that they were simply exaggerated to impress superiors. When that didn’t work, they argued that they were only following orders.

In the end, all 22 defendants were convicted. Thirteen were sentenced to death, and four were actually put to death by hanging before the United States changed course and stopped the executions.

Ferencz stayed in Germany following the trials, participating in reparation and rehabilitation programs designed to benefit victims of Nazi persecution. He also had a hand in negotiating the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany in 1952 and the German Restitution Law of 1953.

Ferencz and his family returned to the United States in 1956, and he set up a private law practice in New York along with his old boss, Telford Taylor. Among their legal work, Ferencz and Taylor represented Jews who were used as forced labor by German industrialist, Friedrich Flick.

Following the Vietnam War, which he opposed, Ferencz left his private legal practice to push for an international criminal court that would serve as the highest court in the world dealing with crimes against humanity and war crimes. His book, Defining International Aggression: The Search for World Peace, was published in 1975 and made the case for an international criminal court.

From 1985-1996 Ferencz served as a professor of international law at Pace University. During his time at Pace, Ferencz continued to advocate for an international criminal court. He gave speeches and met with lawmakers, but the going was slow. Finally, in 2002, his dream of an international criminal court came to fruition. Surprisingly, it was the United States that was most resistant to the court. Although Pres. George W. Bush signed the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the agreement that created the court, the treaty was never ratified. To this day, U.S. citizens are excluded from being brought before the court.

Throughout his life, Ferencz was a principled man. He applauded the conviction in the International Criminal Court of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, founder of the Union of Congolese Patriots, who were accused of ethnic massacres, torture, rape, and mutilation. He was also highly critical of the execution of Osama Bin Laden by the United States, which he called “illegal and unwarranted” in a letter he penned to the New York Times. He believed that Bin Laden’s execution undermined democracy and that the captured Bin Laden should have instead been referred to the international criminal court.

If you travel to The Hague, you can walk the Benjamin Ferencz Footpath, which was dedicated in Ferencz’s honor in 2017. In 2018, a documentary entitled Prosecuting Evil was released on Netflix. The film documents Ferencz’s life and details his work on behalf of the international criminal court and world peace.

For his tireless work, Ferencz has received many awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal, the Governor’s Medal of Freedom from the State of Florida, and the Pahl Peace Prize from the Country of Liechtenstein. He has also been interviewed in several documentaries (in addition to Prosecuting Evil), including Ken Burn’s The U.S. and the Holocaust, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 11/9, and David Wilkenson’s Getting Away with Murder(s).

In 2017, CBS’s 60 Minutes did a profile on Ferencz. That profile was my introduction to the life of Benjamin Ferencz. I have admired his life, his work, and his principles ever since. Here is the 60 Minutes profile. (Click on “Watch on YouTube to see the video.)


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