By Mike Schneider | Associated Press
Ben Ferencz, the last living prosecutor of the Nuremberg Trials, who tried Nazis for genocidal war crimes and was one of the first outside witnesses to document the atrocities of Nazi labor and concentration camps, has passed away. He had just turned 103 in March.
Ferencz died Friday night in Boynton Beach, Florida, according to John Barrett, a law professor at St. John’s University who maintains a blog about the Nuremberg Trials. The death was also confirmed by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington.
“Today the world has lost a leader in the quest for justice for victims of genocide and related crimes,” the museum tweeted.
Born in Transylvania in 1920, Ferencz emigrated to New York with his parents as a very young boy to escape rampant anti-Semitism. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Ferencz joined the United States Army in time to take part in the Normandy invasion during World War II. Using his legal background, he became an investigator of Nazi war crimes against American soldiers as part of a new war crimes section of the Judge Advocate’s Office.
When US intelligence reports described soldiers meeting large groups of starving people in Nazi camps guarded by SS guards, Ferencz followed with visits, first to Germany’s Ohrdruf labor camp and then to the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. In those camps and later in other camps he found bodies “piled up like cordwood” and “helpless skeletons with diarrhea, dysentery, typhoid, tuberculosis, pneumonia and other ailments, retching in their louse-strewn cages or on the ground with only their pitiful eyes . begging for help,” Ferencz wrote in an account of his life.
“Buchenwald concentration camp was a charnel house of indescribable horrors,” wrote Ferencz. “There is no question that I was indelibly traumatized by my experiences as a war crimes investigator in Nazi extermination centers. I’m still trying not to talk or think about the details.”
At one point near the end of the war, Ferencz was sent to Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps to look for incriminating documents, but returned empty-handed.
After the war, Ferencz was honorably discharged from the United States Army and returned to New York to practice law. But that was short-lived. Because of his experiences as a war crimes investigator, he was recruited to help prosecute Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials, which had begun under U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. Before leaving for Germany, he married his childhood sweetheart, Gertrude.
At the age of 27, with no previous trial experience, Ferencz became chief prosecutor for a 1947 case in which 22 former commanders were charged with the murder of more than 1 million Jews, Romani and other enemies of the Third Reich in Eastern Europe. Rather than relying on witnesses, Ferencz relied primarily on official German documents to make his case. All of the defendants were convicted and more than a dozen were sentenced to death by hanging, even though Ferencz had not asked for the death penalty.
“In early April 1948, when the lengthy legal verdict was read, I felt vindicated,” he wrote. “Our pleas to protect humanity through the rule of law were honored.”
As war crimes trials drew to a close, Ferencz went to work for a consortium of Jewish charitable groups to help Holocaust survivors recover property, homes, businesses, artwork, Torah scrolls, and other Jewish religious items confiscated by the Nazis. were taken. . He later also assisted in negotiations that would lead to compensation for the Nazi victims.
In later decades, Ferencz advocated the creation of an international court that could prosecute government leaders for war crimes. Those dreams were realized in 2002 with the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, although its effectiveness was limited by the lack of participation by countries such as the United States.
Ferencz is survived by a son and three daughters. His wife passed away in 2019.
Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP