Tomorrow, March 11, 2023, will mark more or less the 103rd birthday of Benjamin B. Ferencz. He is the last living Nuremberg podium prosecutor, i.e., one who had a speaking role in court. He is most recently, among his many honors, recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal.
I write “more or less” about Ben’s birth date because when he (then Berrel) was born in Transylvania (then part of Romania) around March 1920, no one made a precise record (or at least none has survived) of the event.
Berrel became an emigrant baby, an American, “Benjamin,” a Hell’s Kitchen boy, a New York City schoolboy, a college student and then graduate, a Harvard Law School student and then graduate, and a World War II soldier and war crimes investigator in France and Germany.
Following Nazi Germany’s surrender, Ben Ferencz returned to civilian life. Then in 1946 he was hired to be a prosecutor at Nuremberg of Nazi war crimes. During 1947 and 1948, he was chief prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen case (United States v. Otto Ohlendorf, et al.). He charged the defendants, leaders of Nazi killing operations in Eastern Europe, with crimes against humanity (“a systematic program of genocide”), war crimes, and membership in criminal Nazi organizations.
Ben’s cases against those defendants, built on their contemporaneous killing reports, were brief, horrifying, and irrefutable. More than twenty men were convicted. The Einsatzgruppen case was and is the biggest murder trial in human history.
In the 1950s, Ben returned to the United States. He became a prominent champion of global justice, a builder of international legal institutions, a guide to and a teacher of peace through law, and a moral exemplar to millions.
Ben has been heard to say that he is already 104 years old. Maybe. He at least is cracking the start of his 104th year.
But really, beyond being astounded, who cares about the number? What matters, now and always, is Ben’s life, his work, his ideas, his teaching, and his example.
Thank you deeply, Ben, for being humanity’s lawyer and its—our—dear, indefatigable friend.
For more information, I refer you to these sources, including many that are Ben’s voice—
- video excerpts of his 1947 opening statement at Nuremberg in the Einsatzgruppen case: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b67B-MoKG_o;
- a November 2005 interview of Ben: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e-8m5YHt__4;
- a Ben TED talk from 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zwa4zRWDsvI;
- the trailer of the 2018 documentary, Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=meDbZemxuK4; and
- Ben’s website, a treasure house of his stories, writings, and speeches: https://benferencz.org/.