Saturday, April 08, 2023

Ben Ferencz, last living Nuremberg prosecutor, dies at 103 (WaPo, NY Times)

Heroic Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz solved genocide crimes, presenting Nazi documents to win convictions and death sentences.  He successfully prosecuted some of Nazi murderers who killed one million people. Retired o Florida, and shared the truth with generations.  He inspired creation of the International Criminal Court, but the USA, Russia, Israel and Iraq never joined. 

From The Washington Post: 

Ben Ferencz, last living Nuremberg prosecutor, dies at 103 

At 27, he prosecuted Nazis for more than 1 million deaths in perhaps the largest murder case in history

Benjamin Ferencz at the Nuremberg trial in 1947. (Benjamin Ferencz Archive, courtesy of Planethood Foundation & Schulberg Productions)

Add to your saved sto

Ben Ferencz was a 27-year-old lawyer with no courtroom experience when he prosecuted what would be called the largest murder case in history. Standing 5-foot-2, he nearly disappeared behind the lectern in the packed courtroom in Nuremberg, Germany, in 1947.

Mr. Ferencz, a Transylvanian-born Jew who had arrived in the United States as an infant, presented to a U.S. tribunal the massive case against 22 authorities of the mobile Nazi killing units, called Einsatzgruppen, that operated in Eastern Europe during World War II.

All 22 defendants were convicted. Four were executed. If not for Mr. Ferencz, a former Army investigator who personally tallied the million deaths using sequestered German war documents and brought the case to his superiors, the men might never have been tried.

He was “the lawyer for humanity,” said John Q. Barrett, a professor of law at St. John’s University in New York City and a scholar of the Nuremberg trials. “The scale of the atrocities, the pure innocence of the victims … was at the heart of the exterminationist evil of Nazism.”

Mr. Ferencz, who devoted much of the rest of his life to the cause of international justice, and who was the last living Nuremberg prosecutor, died April 7 at an assisted-living facility in Boynton Beach, Fla. He was 103. His son, Don, confirmed the death but gave no cause.

Mr. Ferencz spoke only Yiddish until he went to school, and he was the first person in his family to go to college. He graduated from Harvard Law School, where he studied war crimes before joining the Army midway through World War II. He was detailed to an investigations unit collecting evidence of Nazi crimes.

Following Allied liberators, Mr. Ferencz visited Nazi concentration camps, including Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Dachau.

“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,” he once said. “I had peered into hell.”

Mr. Ferencz said that when he left Europe at the end of his military service, he wished never to return to Germany. But he was soon recruited back to serve as a civilian under Brig. Gen. Telford Taylor, who succeeded U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson as chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg.

The improbable story of the man who won history’s ‘biggest murder trial’ at Nuremberg

By the time Mr. Ferencz’s phase of the proceedings began, the highest Nazi officials, including Hermann Göring and Rudolf Hess, had been prosecuted. Britain, France and the Soviet Union had moved on to other postwar concerns, leaving the United States to oversee any further prosecutions in Nuremberg.

Under Taylor’s prosecutorial leadership, the tribunal decided the cases of Nazi doctors who had conducted medical experiments on concentration camp inmates, as well as industrialists who had availed themselves of slave labor.

Mr. Ferencz was overseeing investigators examining documents in the German Foreign Ministry when one of his researchers discovered top-secret reports from Einsatzgruppen, detailing the towns and cities the killing squads passed through and the horrors they visited upon them. Barrett described the documents as “murder receipts.”

One, labeled Exhibit 179, was a dispatch from Kyiv.

“The city’s Jews were ordered to present themselves,” read the document, according to an account on the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes.” “About thirty-four thousand reported, including women and children. After they had been made to give up their clothing and valuables, all of them were killed, which took several days.”

Mr. Ferencz, standing second from the right, at the Nuremberg trial in 1947. (Benjamin Ferencz Archive/Planethood Foundation & Schulberg Productions)

Speaking to the London Guardian, Mr. Ferencz recalled that one defendant had ordered his troops: “If the mother is holding an infant to her breast, don’t shoot the mother, shoot the infant because the bullet will go through both of them, and you’ll save ammunition.”

With the United States seeking to form a Cold War alliance with what was to become West Germany, Taylor was under pressure to conclude the tribunal’s proceedings, Barrett said. Initially, the overextended staff seemed unprepared to take on another case, especially one as large as the Einsatzgruppen matter. But Mr. Ferencz implored his superiors not to overlook such a consequential crime.

“I start screaming,” Mr. Ferencz told “60 Minutes” in 2017, recalling his conversation with Taylor. “I said, Look, I’ve got here mass murder, mass murder on an unparalleled scale. And he said, can you do this in addition to your other work? And I said, sure. He said, okay. So you do it.”

With that, Mr. Ferencz found himself in charge of the case.

He chose the defendants based on their rank and education. He could have charged thousands, he said, but was limited by the number of seats in the courtroom.

Mr. Ferencz called no witnesses; the copious Nazi documentation was sufficient to obtain convictions. The defense sought unsuccessfully to challenge the authenticity of the reports, claiming that the killing units had boastfully inflated the number of dead, and arguing that the defendants were simply following orders — a position roundly rejected at Nuremberg.

Mr. Ferencz’s statements before the court were notable, Barrett said, because he used the still-new term “genocide.” Calmly, yet forcefully, he argued that the defendants had acted not according to “military necessity, but by that supreme perversion of thought: the Nazi theory of the master race.”

“Vengeance is not our goal, nor do we seek merely a just retribution,” Mr. Ferencz said in his opening statement. “We ask this court to affirm by international penal action, man’s right to live in peace and dignity, regardless of his race or creed. The case we present is a plea of humanity to law.”

In its judgment, the court declared that “the charge of purposeful homicide in this case reaches such fantastic proportions and surpasses such credible limits that believability must be bolstered with assurance a hundred times repeated.”

Mr. Ferencz carried out his “plea of humanity to law” for decades as an advocate for the rule of law. By the 1970s, as he became increasingly disheartened by the Vietnam War, he scaled back his private New York legal practice to devote himself to the cause of establishing an infrastructure for international justice.

Barrett described him as a “one-man conscience operation,” writing books and “buttonholing … cajoling … pushing” for the establishment of the permanent legal institution that, in 1998, became the International Criminal Court at The Hague. Mr. Ferencz contended that the very act of war — the impetus for the crimes against humanity that he sought to avoid — was the most grievous crime of all.

At the ICC’s first trial, against Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo in 2011, Mr. Ferencz was invited at age 91 to deliver closing arguments. The next year, Lubanga was convicted of the war crime of using child soldiers.

Wherever international justice was practiced, Mr. Ferencz seemed in some way present. Antonio Cassese, first president of The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, recalled in remarks to the United Nations Mr. Ferencz’s words at the Nuremberg trial:

“Death was their tool and life their toy,” he said. “If these men be immune, then law has lost its meaning, and man must live in fear.”

Bela Ferencz was born in the Transylvanian town of Somcuta Mare, in what was then Hungary, on March 11, 1920. In the United States he was given the name Benjamin Berell Ferencz.

He grew up in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, where his father worked as a janitor and house painter. He graduated in 1940 from the City College of New York and in 1943 from Harvard Law School.

During the war, he participated in the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. After the Nuremberg trials, he worked in Europe on programs to restore stolen property and offer compensation to victims of Nazi persecution.

Mr. Ferencz later went into private practice with Taylor, becoming a partner at his New York firm. In 2016, Mr. Ferencz made financial pledges to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for the establishment of the Ben Ferencz International Justice Initiative to assist those “seeking redress — rather than revenge” — for genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Among Mr. Ferencz’s writing were the books “Defining International Aggression: The Search for World Peace” (1975); “Less Than Slaves: Jewish Forced Labor and the Quest for Compensation” (1979), which Kirkus Reviews described as “an important dossier on the private role of German big business in Nazi Germany”; and “An International Criminal Court: A Step Toward World Peace” (1980).

Mr. Ferencz’s wife, the former Gertrude Fried, died in 2019. Survivors include four children, Keri Ferencz of Berkeley, Calif., Robin Kotfica-Ferencz of Carlsbad, Calif., Donald Ferencz of Chepstow, Wales, and Nina Dale of Delray Beach, Fla.; and three grandchildren.

Decades after World War II, Mr. Ferencz remained haunted by what he had seen, in the camps and in the courtroom. The defendants, he told “60 Minutes,” “would never have been murderers had it not been for the war. These were people who could quote Goethe, who loved Wagner, who were polite.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She writes about extraordinary lives in national and international affairs, science and the arts, sports, culture, and beyond. She previously worked for the Outlook and Local Living sections. T
From The New York Times:                                               Benjamin B. Ferencz, Last Surviving Nuremberg Prosecutor, Dies at 103              In addition to convicting prominent Nazi war criminals, he crusaded for an international criminal court and for laws to end wars of aggression.             
ImageThree men in dark suits sit at a table, with the man in the center signing a document. A similarly dressed fourth man stands behind them. Benjamin Ferencz is seated at the right.
Benjamin B. Ferencz, right, at the signing of an agreement between West Germany and Israel in Luxembourg in 1952. Mr. Ferencz helped Jewish groups negotiate a reparations settlement under which West Germany agreed to pay $822 million to Israel and to groups representing survivors of Nazi persecution.Credit...Associated Press
Three men in dark suits sit at a table, with the man in the center signing a document. A similarly dressed fourth man stands behind them. Benjamin Ferencz is seated at the right.

Benjamin B. Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials, who convicted Nazi war criminals of organizing the murder of a million people and German industrialists of using slave labor from concentration camps to build Hitler’s war machine, died on Friday at an assisted living facility in Boynton Beach, Fla. He was 103. 

His son, Don, confirmed the death.

A Harvard-educated New York lawyer whose concept of evil was formed when he was a Jewish soldier in Europe and a war-crimes investigator at Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Dachau, Mr. Ferencz (pronounced fer-RENZ) campaigned after World War II for restitution of property seized by the Nazis. For much of his life he crusaded for an international criminal court, and for laws to end wars of aggression.

The author of nine books and scores of articles, he was fluent in French, Spanish, German, Hungarian and Yiddish and spoke at world peace conferences. He was also widely quoted in interviews and wrote countless letters to editors.

His dream of a tribunal to prosecute war crimes was partly realized in 2002 with the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. But its effectiveness has been limited, and many nations, including the United States, do not recognize its authority. 

Born to illiterate parents in Transylvania, raised in the Hell’s Kitchen area of Manhattan and plucked from obscurity as an Army corporal because he had researched war crimes for a professor, Mr. Ferencz was sent to newly liberated concentration camps by Gen. George S. Patton in the closing stages of the war and rose to prominence as the youngest prosecutor at the postwar Nuremberg trials.

Fulfilling an Allied pledge to bring war criminals to justice, 13 trials were held in Nuremberg, where Nazi rallies had celebrated Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s. In the first and most important trial, held in 1945 and 1946, the International Military Tribunal convicted 24 of the Third Reich’s senior leaders, including Hermann Göring, Hitler’s designated successor, who committed suicide on the eve of his execution, and the military commander Wilhelm Keitel, who was hanged. The chief prosecutor was Associate Justice Robert H. Jackson of the United States Supreme Court.

A dozen subsequent trials at the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg put German judges, doctors, industrialists, diplomats and less senior military leaders in the dock in cases supervised by Justice Jackson’s successor, Gen. Telford Taylor. Mr. Ferencz was assigned to prosecute the notorious Einsatzgruppen case, which for its staggering volume of victims has been called the biggest murder trial in history.

It was the case against 22 Nazis, including six generals, who organized, directed and often joined roaming SS extermination squads — 3,000 killers, aided by the local police and other authorities, who rounded up and slaughtered a million specifically targeted people, or groups, in Nazi-occupied lands: the intelligentsia of every nation, political and cultural leaders, members of the nobility, clergy, teachers, Jews, Gypsies and other “undesirables.” Most were shot, others gassed in mobile vans.

They were crimes that beggar the imagination — 33,771 men, women and children shot or buried alive in the ravine near Kyiv called Babi Yar; the two-day liquidation of 25,000 Latvian Jews from Riga’s ghetto, forced to lie down in pits and shot; the spectacle of a barbarian in Lithuania who killed Jews with a crowbar while crowds cheered and an accordion played marches and anthems.

Unfolding in 1947 and 1948, the Einsatzgruppen trial was Mr. Ferencz’s first court case. But the evidence — mostly detailed records of killings kept by the Nazis themselves — was overwhelming and irrefutable.

“In this case, the defendants are not charged with sitting in an office hundreds of miles away from the slaughter,” the court said in a unanimous judgment. “These men were in the field actively superintending, controlling, directing and taking an active part in the bloody harvest.”

All the defendants were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Fourteen were sentenced to death and two to life in prison. Only four executions were ultimately carried out, however, which was typical of the Nuremberg trials: convictions, heavy sentences and later commutations. Analysts said leniency arose because the new realities of the Cold War with the Soviet Union meant that the Western powers needed Germany politically.

Mr. Ferencz, who was General Taylor’s manager for all the trials, was also a special counsel in prosecuting the Krupp trial, one of three proceedings against German industrialists. A dozen directors of the Krupp company, including the owner, Alfried Krupp, were accused of enabling the Nazis to wage aggressive war by manufacturing armaments, and of working slave labor, mostly Jews from Auschwitz, to death.

“The corporate directors were surprised and indignant to find themselves in the criminal dock,” Mr. Ferencz wrote in his book “Less Than Slaves: Jewish Forced Labor and the Quest for Compensation” (1979), on the refusal of I.G. Farben, Krupp and other companies to offer more than token postwar compensation to surviving victims.

“As far as they were concerned,” he continued, “the use of slaves was a patriotic duty which was both normal and proper under the circumstances.”

A book cover with a tinted photograph of men in striped uniforms doing heavy labor and the words “Less Than Slaves” in all capital letters, with the first two words in black and the third in red.
German corporate directors “were surprised and indignant to find themselves in the criminal dock,” Mr. Ferencz wrote in a 1979 book.Credit...Indiana University Press
A book cover with a tinted photograph of men in striped uniforms doing heavy labor and the words “Less Than Slaves” in all capital letters, with the first two words in black and the third in red.

But the trial evidence clearly showed that Krupp flourished under the Nazis, and that it worked 100,000 slave laborers under brutal conditions that made “labor and death almost synonymous,” the court said in 1948 as it found 11 defendants guilty and sentenced them to prison terms of three to 12 years.

By 1951 all had been released, and by 1953 Alfried Krupp had resumed control of his company.

After the Nuremberg trials ended, in 1949, Mr. Ferencz remained in West Germany and helped Jewish groups negotiate a reparations settlement in 1952 under which West Germany agreed to pay $822 million to Israel and to groups representing survivors of Nazi persecution as what Mr. Ferencz and other critics called token compensation for suffering and for assets seized illegally. Only $125 million of the compensation went to victims; Farben, for example, gave only $825 per victim for years of horrific persecutions.

In 1956, he returned to New York and became General Taylor’s law partner. But in the late 1960s and early ’70s, as the United States became more deeply involved in the Vietnam War, Mr. Ferencz gradually withdrew from private law practice to write books and to promote world peace and a permanent international criminal court.

“Nuremberg taught me that creating a world of tolerance and compassion would be a long and arduous task,” he recalled on his website. “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.”

Benjamin Berell Ferencz was born in a thatched house in the Transylvanian village of Somcuta Mare, Romania, on March 11, 1920, to Joseph and Sarah Legman (Schwartz) Ferencz. In the shifting borders of the era, his sister had been born a Hungarian in the same house a year and a half earlier. When Ben was an infant, the family fled to the United States to escape a pogrom of Jews after Transylvania was ceded by Hungary to Romania under the 1920 Treaty of Trianon.

“We came here as poor immigrants,” Mr. Ferencz told The New York Times in 2000. “My parents were illiterate. No skills, no nothing, except two little children. I was raised in New York, Hell’s Kitchen, a high-density crime area. I recognized early that I wanted to do crime prevention. I was interested in juvenile delinquency primarily because I was surrounded by juvenile delinquents.”

He attended Townsend Harris High School in Manhattan, but he got into a spat with a dean over his refusal to attend gym classes and did not receive a diploma. He graduated with high honors from the tuition-free City College in 1940 and received a scholarship to Harvard Law School, where he studied under the renowned legal scholar Roscoe Pound. His research for Sheldon Glueck, a Harvard professor who was writing a book on war crimes, took him deep into the subject and proved critical to his career in Europe.

After earning his law degree in 1943, he enlisted in the wartime Army and became a private in an antiaircraft artillery unit. He joined the Normandy invasion in 1944 and fought across France and Germany. In 1945, his legal training and war-crimes expertise were recognized by the Army, and he was assigned to General Patton’s Third Army headquarters and then to investigate newly liberated concentration camps for evidence of war crimes.

What he witnessed was seared into memory. At Buchenwald, he said, “I saw crematoria still going. The bodies starved, lying dying, on the ground. I’ve seen the horrors of war more than can be adequately described.”

At Mauthausen, he found incriminating ledgers kept by the Nazi commandant on the number and manner of prisoners killed each day, on starvation rations and on horrific conditions in the lice-infested barracks. Sergeant Ferencz mustered out of the Army in Germany late in 1945.

A color portrait of Benjamin Ferencz as a much older man, with a cap on his head and an inscrutable expression on his face.
Mr. Ferencz in the 2019 documentary “Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz.”Credit...Robin Utrecht/Vertical Entertainment
A color portrait of Benjamin Ferencz as a much older man, with a cap on his head and an inscrutable expression on his face.

In 1946, he married Gertrude Fried in New York. The couple soon returned to Germany, and their four children were all born in Nuremberg. His wife died in 2019. In addition to his son, he is survived by three daughters, Nina Dale, Robin Ferencz-Kotfica and Keri Ferencz, and three grandchildren.

Mr. Ferencz, who lived in New Rochelle, N.Y., and in recent years in Delray Beach, Fla., with his son Donald, taught at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y., from 1985 to 1996. In 2016, he gave $1 million and pledged millions more to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington for its Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

His other books included “Defining International Aggression: The Search for World Peace” (1975) and “An International Criminal Court: A Step Toward World Peace” (1980). He was the subject of a 2019 documentary directed by Barry Avrich, “Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz.”

Although Mr. Ferencz supported the International Criminal Court, it fell short of his hopes. While it may prosecute genocide and war crimes under a treaty signed by more than 120 nations, its reach does not include wars of aggression, whose definition is elusive. Some 40 countries, including the United States, Russia, China, Israel and Iraq, did not sign or ratify the treaty. Critics say the court has focused on prosecutions in Africa while American wars have not even been investigated.

“The United States was in fact the leader in creating the rule of law in connection with war at the Nuremberg tribunals and inspired the world,” Mr. Ferencz told The Times, “and the president of the United States under our Constitution is vested with the sole authority to negotiate and sign treaties. But the authority seems to have slipped away.”

Remy Tumin contributed reporting.

Robert D. McFadden is a senior writer on the Obituaries desk and the winner of the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting. He joined The Times in May 1961 and is also the co-author of two books. 

A version of this article appears in print on April 9, 2023, Section A, Page 23 of the New York edition with the headline: Benjamin B. Ferencz, 103, Last Surviving Nuremberg Prosecutor, DiesOrder Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

No comments: