By: Jeff Perlman Editor in Chief
Benjamin Ferencz is barely 5 feet tall, but he is a giant of a man.
At age 98, the Delray Beach resident, remains a passionate crusader for human rights, international law and a living testament to the horrors of genocide.
He is the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials and captivated a room full of people at Boca West last week with his experiences and life lessons– which remain relevant to our world today.
Mr. Ferencz was the keynote speaker at a dinner that raises funds and awareness for the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C.
Mr. Ferencz was born in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania in 1920. When he was ten months old his family moved to America. His earliest memories are of his small basement apartment in a neighborhood known as “Hell’s Kitchen.” Even at an early age, he felt a deep yearning for universal friendship and world peace. He also found an early love for the law, having witnessed crime, he told the audience he wanted to be on the side of the law—and the good guys.
After he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1943, he joined an anti-aircraft artillery battalion preparing for the invasion of France. As an enlisted man under General Patton, he fought in every campaign in Europe. As Nazi atrocities were uncovered, he was transferred to a newly created War Crimes Branch of the Army to gather evidence of Nazi brutality and apprehend the criminals.
“Indelibly seared into my memory are the scenes I witnessed while liberating these centers of death and destruction. Camps like Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and Dachau are vividly imprinted in my mind’s eye. 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,” he said in a 1988 interview.
On the day after Christmas 1945, Ferencz was honorably discharged from the U.S. Army with the rank of Sergeant of Infantry. He returned to New York and prepared to practice law. Shortly thereafter, he was recruited for the Nuremberg war crimes trials. The International Military Tribunal prosecution against German Field Marshal, Herman Goering and other leading Nazis was already in progress under the leadership the American Prosecutor, Robert M. Jackson on leave from the U.S. Supreme Court.
The U.S. had decided to prosecute a broad cross section of Nazi criminals once the trial against Goering and his henchmen was over. General Telford Taylor was assigned as Chief of Counsel for 12 subsequent trials.
Mr. Ferencz was sent with about fifty researchers to Berlin to scour Nazi offices and archives. In their hands lay overwhelming evidence of Nazi genocide by German doctors, lawyers, judges, generals, industrialists, and others who played leading roles in organizing or perpetrating Nazi brutalities. Without pity or remorse, the SS murder squads killed every Jewish man, woman, and child they could lay their hands on. Gypsies, communist functionaries, and Soviet intellectuals suffered the same fate. It was tabulated that over a million persons were deliberately murdered by these special “action groups.
Mr. Ferencz became Chief Prosecutor for the United States in The Einsatzgruppen Case, which the Associated Press called “the biggest murder trial in history.” Twenty-two defendants were charged with murdering over a million people. He was only 27. It was his first case.
All of the defendants were convicted and 13 were sentenced to death.
Mr. Ferencz emphasized that the men he prosecuted were generals and PhD’s; evidence he said that war can warp the hearts and minds of educated and accomplished people.
The verdict was hailed as a great success for the prosecution. Mr. Ferencz’s primary objective had been to establish a legal precedent that would encourage a more humane and secure world in the future.
His lifelong motto became “law not war” and he told the crowd in Boca Raton last week that his work is not done; the mission remains elusive as we experience genocide in places like Rwanda, Syria, Myanmar etc.
Even at this advanced age—though he does 120 pushups every morning—he continues to work for the cause. He travels extensively to speak and advocate and was recently featured on 60 Minutes.
“Nuremberg taught me that creating a world of tolerance and compassion would be a long and arduous task. 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.”
We felt honored and lucky to see and hear him speak. As guests of Shelly and Billy Himmelrich—two longtime supporters of the museum (Shelly was recently honored with a national award for her work with the museum) we were motivated to support the mission.
Eli Wiesel said the best museums pose questions, not answers and he is correct.
As a young journalist I had the opportunity to travel to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The experience was indelible and motivated me to get involved with Steven Spielberg’s “Survivors of the Shoah” program which was launched after he made the movie “Schindler’s List.”
That experience allowed to meet survivors and to research their experiences.
It’s important for current and future generations to study history, because what happened in the past informs our present and our future.
While it is a rare occurrence to be in a room with a living legend like Ben Ferencz, if we open our eyes there’s a lot of history we can access in our communities.
If we talk to our parents and grandparents and ask them about their lives and experiences we are sure to learn great lessons.
I have been truly blessed in my life to have a father still alive and vibrant, grandparents who were wonderful storytellers and who lived rich lives and friends who have seen and experienced a lot of history.
On occasion—when invited—I will eat breakfast at Donnie’s Place with a group of Elders who never fail to educate me on local history, race relations and what Delray Beach was like “back in the day.”
I also have another close friend who reads widely on history and is generous to share what he learns over monthly lunches.
The opportunities are there. It is important that we never forget and it is also important that we share what we have learned.