Obituary: Benjamin Ferencz

Youngest Nazi war crimes prosecutor who campaigned for international justice


Former chief prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz addresses guests during the inauguration of the new information and documentation center "Memorial Nuremberg Trials", in Nuremberg, southern Germany, on November 21, 2010. The exhibit is located in the attic above courtroom 600 where 21 top Nazis including Hermann Goering and Rudolf Hess went on trial on November 20, 1945, in full view of the world's, and Germany's, media. The courtroom is still in use but when not, members of the public can still enter, and visitors to the new exhibit can peek through small windows and see where the historic events of 1945-6 unfolded. The German city of Nuremberg was associated like no other with the Nazis. It was here that they created the main race laws against Jews and where their enormous party rallies took place. AFP PHOTO POOL / ARMIN WEIGEL (Photo credit should read ARMIN WEIGEL/AFP via Getty Images)

Born in a village in Transylvania, then part of Romania, Benjamin Ferencz emigrated to the United States as a young boy with his parents Sarah and Joseph Ferencz and his sister, to escape antisemitism.

Living in an insalubrious area of New York, known as Hell’s Kitchen, he went on to study at Harvard Law School and at 27 become the youngest prosecutor of Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg trials –later described as the biggest murder trial in history.

A diminutive corporal in the American army, some five feet two inches in height, Ferencz, who has died in Florida aged 103, was raised from obscurity by the chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, General Telford Taylor, because he had researched war crimes at Harvard.

He was ordered to go to Berlin with a team of 50 researchers to compile evidence on who was in charge of the concentration camps and how many inmates had been killed.

A member of his team stumbled on the records of the Einsatzgruppen, special police battalions of killers, listing where they had committed atrocities and how many persons they had slaughtered.

Horrified, Ferencz reported to General Taylor that he had found evidence of the murder of a million people, gypsies, political opponents, homosexuals, but mostly Jews, and that there was a need for an additional trial at Nuremberg, besides those of the major war criminals. Unwilling to concede to his request at first because of the extra cost, Taylor reluctantly agreed, provided Ferencz continued with his other supervisory activities while taking over as prosecutor at the trial.

He opened his argument with the declaration: “Vengeance is not our goal … we ask this court to affirm by international penal action man’s right to live in peace and dignity.”

Among the most noteworthy crimes committed by these death squads was the murder of over 30,000 Jewish men, women and children in a ravine at Babi Yar near Kyiv, and 25,000 Jews seized from the Riga ghetto in Latvia, who were ordered to lie down in pits and then shot.

Twenty-two men, including six generals, who directed the extermination squads were put on trial towards the end of 1946 over a period of six months, five months of which were filled by defence submissions.

Ferencz opted to call one witness to prove the records from Berlin, fearing that traumatised witnesses to the Holocaust would be overwhelmed by lengthy and tiring questioning.

Having encountered the persuasive Raphael Lemkin at Nuremberg, Ferencz borrowed his concept of genocide and utilised it when prosecuting. His over-all strategy for the trial proved extremely acute, as all the defendants were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Fourteen were sentenced to death by hanging, while the rest were given sentences ranging from ten years to life imprisonment. Because of the growing friction between the Soviet Union and the West during the Cold War and the need to keep the West Germans as allies, only four of the accused were executed.

Ferencz had not, in fact, requested the death penalty. Having served brief prison sentences, all the accused had their sentences commuted and were released, to Ferencz’s fury.

Ferencz was Telford Taylor’s general manager for some 12 trials and was special counsel in the case against the German industrialist Alfred Krupp.

The court concluded that Krupp worked 100,000 slave labourers, many from concentration camps, in conditions which “made labour and death almost synonymous”.

Again, having served a few years in prison, Krupp was released in 1951 and two years later was back at the helm of his vast industrial enterprise.

After the War Ferencz stayed in Germany and assisted in the negotiations which led to the reparations settlement when West Germany paid Israel and survivors’ groups 822 million dollars.However, in his book Less Than Slaves: Jewish Forced Labor and the Quest for Compensation (1979) he held that the individual victims of these death factories had been grossly under-compensated.

When he returned to America after the War, Ferencz became Telford Taylor’s law partner in New York. But in the late 1960s, with the United States’ increasing involvement in the Vietnam War, Ferencz was among its early critics.

Growing disillusioned with private law practice, he decided to devote himself to writing books on the definition of aggression in international law and world peace. He campaigned for the establishment of an international criminal court and saw his wishes granted in 2002, though despite his efforts, America refrained from recognizing its jurisdiction.

Throughout his long life he held to the belief that if we do not devote ourselves to developing effective world law, the same cruel mentality that made the Holocaust possible might one day devour humanity.

True to his ideals, he gave a million dollars to the Simon Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the US Holocaust Museum. Gertrude Fried, his wife of over 70 years, predeceased him in 2019. He is survived by his son Don, three daughters, Nina, Robin and Keri and three grandchildren.

Benjamin Ferencz: born March 11, 1920.
Died April 7 2023

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