Among the first outside witnesses to describe the atrocities of Nazi labor and concentration camps, Ben Ferencz was the only surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials, which prosecuted Nazis for genocidal war crimes. In March, he became 103 years old.
According to St. John’s University law professor and Nuremberg trials blogger John Barrett, Ferencz passed away on Friday evening in Boynton Beach, Florida. Even the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, confirmed the deceased.
“Today the world lost a leader in the quest for justice for victims of genocide and related crimes,” the museum tweeted. Ferencz, who was born in Transylvania in 1920, moved to New York with his family at an early age to avoid the widespread antisemitism in his home country.
Ferencz joined the U.S. Army shortly after graduating from Harvard Law School, allowing him to take part in the Normandy invasion. With his legal training, he joined the newly formed War Crimes Department of the Judge Advocate General’s Office and investigated Nazi atrocities committed against American servicemen.
Ferencz visited the German concentration camps of Ohrdruf and Buchenwald after hearing stories from American soldiers that they had encountered enormous numbers of starved people in Nazi camps guarded by SS officers.
Bodies “piled up like cordwood” and “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,” Ferencz recounted in an account of his life.
“The Buchenwald concentration camp was a charnel house of indescribable horrors,” Ferencz wrote. “There is no doubt that I was indelibly traumatized by my experiences as a war crimes investigator of Nazi extermination centers. I still try not to talk or think about the details.”
Near the war’s end, Ferencz was dispatched to Adolf Hitler’s Bavarian Alpine retreat in search of incriminating documents, but he returned with nothing. Following his wartime service in the United States Army, Ferencz received an honorable discharge and returned to New York to resume his legal career.
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But alas, that was just temporary. His background as a war crimes investigator led to his recruitment to assist in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials, which were being presided over by then-Justice Robert Jackson of the United States Supreme Court. He tied the knot with his longtime crush, Gertrude, before moving to Germany.
When 22 former commanders were prosecuted in 1947 with the mass murder of Jews, Roma, and other opponents of the Third Reich in Eastern Europe, Ferencz, then 27 years old, took on the role of chief prosecutor despite having no prior trial experience.
Ferencz relied heavily on official German documentation in place of testimony from individuals involved in the case. Ferencz didn’t request the death penalty, but all the accused were found guilty. More than a dozen of them were sentenced to death by hanging.
“At the beginning of April 1948, when the long legal judgment was read, I felt vindicated,” he wrote. “Our pleas to protect humanity by the rule of law had been upheld.”
When the war crimes trials came to a close, Ferencz began working with a coalition of Jewish humanitarian organizations to assist Holocaust survivors in recovering their stolen property and belongings, including homes, companies, artwork, and holy artifacts like Torah scrolls.
After that, he helped negotiate reparations for Holocaust victims. Later in life, Ferencz advocated for the establishment of a global war crimes tribunal with the authority to try officials from any nation.
The International Criminal Court at The Hague was established in 2002, making these hopes a reality. However, the Court’s efficacy has been hampered by the refusal of some countries, including the United States, to join. There is one son and three daughters left behind by Ferencz. In 2019, he lost his wife.
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