Life & Culture

Parting Words: 9 lessons for a remarkable life

Benjamin Ferencz’s is a classic rags-to-riches story written with touching modesty, writes David Herman


Parting Words: 9 lessons for a remarkable life

by Benjamin Ferencz

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Yesterday was Benjamin Ferencz’s 101st birthday. He has packed an enormous amount into his long life. Born into a Jewish family in Transylvania, he went to New York before he was one-year-old, graduated from Harvard Law School, landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, witnessed the liberation of several concentration camps — and was a prosecutor at Nuremberg. 

He pioneered the return of property to Holocaust survivors after the war, led reparation negotiations between Israel and West Germany and helped found the International Criminal Court. He also managed to fit in 74 years of marriage and four children. 

His is a classic rags-to-riches story written with touching modesty and much good humour. He was born in a peasant cottage without running water, lavatory or electricity. His family fled antisemitism and came to New York in 1920. His father, “a one-eyed shoemaker”, lugged his heavy anvils, hammers and shoemaking tools across the Atlantic. Unable to speak English, barely literate and homeless, he managed to get a job as a janitor in Manhattan’s “Hell’s Kitchen”, became a bootlegger and got divorced “after ten years of unholy acrimony”. 

Benjamin didn’t start school until he was eight, got into City College without a high-school diploma and then, amazingly, was awarded a scholarship to Harvard Law School. 

In 1943, he enlisted. In his three years in the army, he saw action in France and ended up investigating war crimes for General Patton’s Third Army. He visited “about ten camps”, including Buchenwald and Mauthausen, and describes the scene: “Bodies lying all over the ground, some dead, some wounded, begging, weak, pleading with their eyes for something… They were scenes of indescribable horror.” 

His job was to track down any evidence he could find. He knew the Nazis would deny everything. “Do your job: seize the evidence and move on to the next camp.” 

His account of the Nuremberg Trials  is the most fascinating chapter. His main breakthrough came in finding key evidence against the Einsatzgruppen, who had killed countless Jews on the Eastern Front, the so-called “Holocaust by bullets”. 

He writes: “We had in our hands clear-cut evidence of genocide on a massive scale, distributed to all the higher echelons of the Nazi hierarchy, all of whom said they didn’t know anything about it… And so it came to pass that little Benny boy from Transylvania became the chief prosecutor of the biggest murder trial in human history. I was twenty-seven years old… It was my first ever case.”  

David Herman is a senior JC reviewer

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