Ben Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials, who tried Nazis for war crimes involving mass murder and was one of the first outside witnesses to record the horrors of Nazi labor and death camps, has passed away.
March marked his 103rd birthday.
According to St. John’s University law professor John Barrett, who writes a blog about the Nuremberg trials, Ferencz passed away Friday night in Boynton Beach, Florida.
Also confirming the death was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
According to a tweet from the museum, “Today the world lost a leader in the fight for justice for victims of genocide and associated crimes.”
Born in Transylvania in 1920, Ferencz moved to New York as a young child with his parents to flee the region’s pervasive anti-Semitism.
Ferencz entered the American military after earning his law degree from Harvard.
With his legal training, he joined the Judge Advocate’s Office’s new War Crimes Department to look into Nazi war crimes committed against American soldiers in time for them to participate in the Normandy invasion during World War II.
Ferencz followed up with visits, first to the famed Buchenwald concentration camp and later to the German work camp of Ohrdruf, where soldiers were said to have encountered enormous groups of famished individuals under the watchful eyes of SS guards.
In a memoir of his life, Ferencz described the camps where he first met them as being “piled up like cordwood” and filled with “helpless skeletons with diarrhea, dysentery, typhus, TB, pneumonia, and other ailments, retching in their louse-ridden bunks or on the ground with only their pathetic eyes pleading for help.”
According to Ferencz, the Buchenwald concentration camp “was a charnel pit of unspeakable atrocities.”
Without a doubt, my experiences as a war crimes investigator of the Nazi destruction left me permanently damaged.
Ferencz was sent to Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps at one point near the war’s end to look for evidence, but he returned empty-handed.
Ferencz was honorably dismissed from the U.S. military following the war. Army and then came back to New York to start a law practice.
But that didn’t last long. He was hired to assist in bringing Nazi war criminals to justice at the Nuremberg trials, which had started under the direction of the U.S., because of his experiences as a war crimes investigator.
Robert Jackson, a justice in the high court. He married Gertrude, his childhood girlfriend, before departing for Germany.
At 27, Ferencz was appointed chief prosecutor in a 1947 case in which 22 former commanders were accused of killing more than 1 million Jews, Gypsies, and other Third Reich adversaries in Eastern Europe.
Ferencz had no prior experience in the courtroom—Ferencz primarily based his argument on official German documentation rather than witnesses.
Despite Ferencz’s refusal to request the death penalty, all accused were found guilty, and hanging sentences gave more than a dozen deaths.
When the lengthy judicial verdict was read at the beginning of April 1948, he wrote, “I felt justified.” Our requests to uphold the rule of law and defend humanity were granted.
After the war crimes trials ended, Ferencz started working for a coalition of Jewish philanthropic organizations to assist Holocaust survivors in getting back the possessions, homes, enterprises, works of art, Torah scrolls, and other Jewish holy objects that the Nazis had taken from them.
Later on, he helped in negotiations that resulted in payments to Nazi victims.
Later on, Ferencz promoted the establishment of an international court with authority to try war criminals in any country.
These aspirations came true in 2002 with the creation of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, albeit its efficacy has been constrained by nations like the United States’ refusal to participate.
Three girls and a boy survive Ferencz. He lost his wife in 2019.