Ben Ferenc, the last living prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials who tried the Nazis for genocidal war crimes and was one of the first outside witnesses to document the atrocities of Nazi labor and concentration camps, has died. He had turned 103 in March.
Ference died Friday evening in Boynton Beach, Florida, according to John Barrett, a law professor at St. John’s University. blog About the Nuremberg trials. 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.
Born in Transylvania in 1920, Ferenc moved to New York with his parents as a boy to escape widespread 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 others later, he saw “bodies piled up like ropes” and “helpless skeletons with diarrhea, dysentery, typhus, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and other ailments, returning only to their pitiful eyes in lice-infested cottons or on the floor. Begging for help,” Ferenc wrote Account of his life.
“The Buchenwald concentration camp was a channel of unspeakable horrors,” wrote Ferenc. “There is no doubt that I was indelibly traumatized by my experiences as a war crimes interrogator of 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.
At the age of 27, with no previous trial experience, Ferenc became the lead prosecutor in the 1947 trial in which 22 former generals were accused of murdering 1 million Jews, Romani and other enemies 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.
“In early April 1948, when the long legal verdict was read, I felt vindicated,” he wrote. “Our demands for the protection of humanity through the rule of law have been vindicated.”
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.
Ferencs has one son and three daughters. His wife died in 2019.
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