Ben Ferencz, the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials who prosecuted the Nazis for genocidal war crimes — and one of the first outside witnesses to document the atrocities of Nazi labor and concentration camps — has died, his son confirmed to CBS News. He had turned 103 in March.
Ferencz’s son, Don Ferencz, told CBS News that his father died peacefully Friday in Boynton Beach, Florida. His son said he was living in an assisted living facility.
When asked for a family statement, he said his father could be summed up with the words “not war” and “never give up”.
The death was also confirmed by the American Holocaust 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.
At age 27, with no prior trial experience, he became the lead prosecutor in the 1947 case in which 22 former Nazi commanders were accused of murdering 1 million Jews, Gypsies and other opponents of the Third Reich in Eastern Europe.
Rather than relying on witnesses, Ferenc relied mostly on official German documents to make his case. All defendants were convicted, and more than a dozen were sentenced to death, although Ferenc did not seek the death penalty.
“I will tell you something very profound that I have learned after many years.” Ferenc tells “60 Minutes.” In a 2017 interview. “War makes murderers out of otherwise decent men. All war, all decent people.”
Born in Transylvania in 1920, Ferenc moved to New York with his parents as a boy to escape intense anti-Semitism. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Ferenc joined the US Army to participate 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 the new War Crimes Unit of the Office of the Judge Advocate General.
Ferenc visited Germany first at the Ohrdruf labor camp and later at the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp, when American intelligence reports described soldiers encountering large groups of starving Nazi camps monitored by SS guards. In those camps and later, he saw bodies “piled up like ropes” and “helpless skeletons with diarrhea, dysentery, typhus, tuberculosis, pneumonia and other diseases, returning only with pitiful eyes in lice-infested bunkers or on the floor. Begging for help,” Ferenc wrote about his life. .
“The Buchenwald concentration camp was a house of unspeakable horrors,” wrote Ferenc. “There is no doubt that I was indelibly traumatized by my experiences as a war crimes interrogator in the Nazi extermination centers. I still don’t try to talk or think about the details.”
At one point toward the end of the war, Ferenc was sent to Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps to search for incriminating documents, but returned empty-handed.
After the war, Ferenc was honorably discharged from the US Army and returned to New York to begin practicing law. But it was short lived. Because of his experiences as a war crimes investigator, he was assigned to help investigate Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials, which began under the chairmanship of US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. Before moving to Germany, he married his childhood sweetheart, Gertrude.
As the war crimes trials ended, Ferenc worked for a consortium of Jewish charities to help Holocaust survivors recover property, homes, businesses, artwork, Torah scrolls and other Jewish religious items confiscated by the Nazis. . He later helped negotiate reparations for Nazi victims.
In later decades, Ferenc succeeded in creating an international court that could punish the leaders of any government 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 failure of countries such as the United States to participate.
“I’m still in the fight,” Ference said in a 2017 interview with “60 Minutes.” “You know what keeps me going? I know I’m right.”