THE LAST NUREMBERG PROSECUTOR
Born in Somcuta Mare in Transylvania, he came from a Jewish family. His father was a shoemaker.
A few months after he was born the Treaty of Trianon was ratified (one of the many post-First World War treaties). This took Transylvania from Hungary and gave it to Romania.
But the Romanians began persecuting the Hungarian Jews, so at the age of 10 months, Benjamin’s family emigrated to the USA.
They lived in the Lower East side of Manhattan. Benjamin studied Crime Prevention at New York City College and won a scholarship to Harvard Law School.
There, his tutor was noted lawyer Roscoe Pound, who was the Dean of the law school between 1916 and 1936.
To earn extra money, Benjamin did research for criminologist Sheldon Glueck who was writing a book on war crimes.
Benjamin graduated in 1943 and immediately signed up for the US Army.
He began as a typist – even though he could not type. He also admitted he had no idea how to fire a gun so he was moved to cleaning floors and toilets.
Then he was transferred to the 115th AAA (anti-aircraft artillery) Gun Battalion.
In 1945 he was transferred to General Patton’s Third Army and was assigned to the war crimes unit. The unit was collecting evidence. Benjamin had to visit every concentration camp liberated by the US Army, in his search for criminals and convictions. He said, “Hell would be paradise compared to what I saw”.
He also had to exhume any murdered American soldiers to see if there was any forensic evidence leading to the perpetrators of the crimes.
He was discharged at Christmas 1945 with the rank of sergeant and returned home to marry his teenage sweetheart Gertrude Fried. They were to be married 73 years, “with never a quarrel”, and had four children (Carol, Robin Eve, Donald and Nina). Years later his children remembered the family sitting around the dining room table each evening. He would ask them the same question. “What have you done for mankind today?”
Benjamin was immediately recruited as a war crimes prosecutor, so he and Gertrude moved to Germany, where all of their children were born. He was heavily involved the Nuremberg trials.
His first case as prosecutor (aged just 27) was the ‘Einsatzgruppen’ trial, where 24 men were indicted. Einsatzgruppen were the Nazis ‘elite’ killing squadrons. His prosecution speech impressed all who heard it. He called the Holocaust, “The darkest page in human history.” He also emphasised, “Our goal is not vengeance but to create man’s right to live in dignity regardless of race or creed.”
All 24 of the men were found guilty, 13 of them sentenced to death and 3 of the sentences were actually carried out.
However, he was furious when all the convicted men were released to help create the army of the newly founded West Germany.
On his investigative trips around Germany (and elsewhere in Europe) he saw and heard many things which stayed with him throughout his life. He was appalled by the barbarity of war.
He became increasingly involved in reparation and rehabilitation of the victims of the Nazi regime. He played a significant role in creating the ‘Reparations Agreement’ between Israel and the USA in 1952, and the ‘German Restitution Laws’ of 1953, which allowed the return of stolen property and the awarding of compensation.
In 1956 the family returned to the USA and settled in Florida. Benjamin moved into private law practice, becoming a partner of Telford Taylor.
But he still had one war case to complete – the Flick Trial. Jewish forced labourers took industrialist Friedrich Flick to court for using them as slave labour during the war. During the trial Benjamin identified the phenomenon where the criminal portrays himself as a victim.
He spent 13 years in private practice but during the Vietnam War he began to campaign for an International Criminal Court to try those guilty of war crimes.
In 1975 he wrote a book – ‘Defining International Aggression : The Search for World Peace’.
At the same time he became Professor of International Law at Pace University, White Plains, New York.
In 2002 the International Criminal Court was launched. The USA, under the George W. Bush administration broadly approved the idea but refused to ratify the treaty, saying they would not let US citizens be tried by people from a foreign country. Ferencz argued with the US government saying it should sign up without reservation. “The law must apply to equally to everyone.”
Benjamin caused massive controversy during the 2006 trial of Saddam Hussein, saying that George W. Bush should also be put on trial, “as he started the Iraqi war.”
In 2009, Benjamin won the Erasmus Prize, awarded to, “individuals or institutions that have made notable contributions to European culture, society or social science.”
In May 2011, two days after the killing of Osama Bin Laden, he told the New York Times, “Illegal and unwarranted execution, even of suspected mass murderers, undermines democracy.”
In 2012 he spoke at the trial in Uganda of Thomas Lubenga, accused of war crimes in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Lubenga was found guilty – “a milestone in the evolution of criminal law.”
In 2015, Benjamin received the highest possible honour from the US Holocaust Museum.
In 2017 in The Hague, Netherlands, the path to the Peace Palace was named after him – the ‘Benjamin Ferencspad’ (footpath).
In 2018 Netflix released a documentary about him called ‘Prosecuting Evil’. He always remained positive and called for the continued struggle against evil. “These are not crimes committed by devils in horns. They are committed by educated, well-intentioned, patriotic people…but we have to change people’s mindset.”
He added, “Don’t give up. Law is always better than war.”
But in 2019, his beloved Gertrude died.
That same year noted sculptor Yaacov Heller presented Benjamin with a bust of himself for his work on genocide prevention.
He continued appearing in other documentaries such as ‘Farenheit 9/11’, ‘Getting away with Murder’ and the Ken Burns film ‘The US and the Holocaust’. And he continued to write books.
At his 100th birthday he released a book entitled ‘Make It Count – Nine Lessons for a Remarkable Life (or What You Know When You’re 100)’. In it he said whilst learning lessons from the past you must not dwell on it. You must look to the future.
In 2022 the Governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis awarded him the ‘Governor’s Medal of Freedom’. This was followed shortly afterwards by the award of the Congressional Gold Medal.
He was appalled by the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and said Vladimir Putin, “should be put behind bars.”
Benjamin died in a Florida care home. He was the last surviving Nuremberg Trials prosecutor.
One of his children remembered his advice when he asked them to tidy his bedroom – “Don’t leave a place the way you found it. Leave it the way you would have liked to have found it.” He said this was a metaphor for life.
RIP – Researching & Investigating Prosecutor.