Young Nuremberg Prosecutor: Benjamin Ferencz

His slogan was “law not war.”

Benjamin Ferencz was an investigator of Nazi war crimes who served as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials and later dedicated his life to fostering world peace.

Born in Hungary in 1920, Ben immigrated to the U.S. with his family as an infant to escape anti-Jewish persecution. They settled in the lower east side of New York. Ben attended City College of NY, where he studied criminal law. He was an exceptional student and had such a high score on the final exam that he won a full scholarship to Harvard Law School. He graduated in 1943 and joined the US Army, where he served in an anti-aircraft artillery unit.

After the war ended in 1945, Ben was transferred to General Patton’s headquarters and assigned to a team investigating war crimes. He visited concentration camps immediately after they were liberated, and wrote: “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.”

Later that year, he was honorably discharged with rank of sergeant. He went back to NY to start his law career, but was soon recruited to prosecute top Nazis for war crimes in the famous Nuremberg trials. Ben traveled to Germany and started interviewing Jewish survivors in Displaced Persons Camps. He told the Washington Post about the strange and disturbing post-war atmosphere, “Someone who was not there could never really grasp how unreal the situation was… I once saw DPs beat an SS man and then strap him to the steel gurney of a crematorium. They slid him in the oven, turned on the heat and took him back out. Beat him again, and put him back in until he was burnt alive. I did nothing to stop it. I suppose I could have brandished my weapon or shot in the air, but I was not inclined to do so. Does that make me an accomplice to murder?” He continued, “You know how I got witness statements? I’d go into a village where, say, an American pilot had parachuted and been beaten to death and line everyone up against the wall. Then I’d say, ‘Anyone who lies will be shot on the spot.’ It never occurred to me that statements taken under duress would be invalid.”

Ben had a lot to learn; the Nuremberg prosecution was his first criminal case! He went to Berlin with fifty researchers tasked with searching through every German office and archive. They uncovered a vast trove of evidence against the Nazis. Perhaps the most shocking was the revelation that many members of the German elite were integrally involved in Nazi atrocities. Doctors, lawyers, judges, professors, and business moguls were active participants in the genocide of the Jews.

At 27 years old, Ben 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 men were on trial for murdering one million people.

All of the defendants were convicted and thirteen received the death penalty. Afterwards, Ben said, “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.”

Ben devoted his life to the cause of world peace and wrote several books about how to achieve it. He was essential in the establishment of the International Criminal Court to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity. Ben’s slogan is “law not war.” After a long and full life, Ben died at age 103 in April 2023.

For devoting his life to justice and peace, we honor Benjamin Ferencz as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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