HeroVet: Benjamin Ferencz
Benjamin Berell Ferencz, the son of Hungarian immigrants, fought with the U.S. Army in World War II in Europe, witnessed the liberation of German concentration camps, and served as a lead prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials. For over 70 years, he has condemned atrocities against people of race or creed, and committed himself to settling disputes without the use of force.
He is 102 years old, and as outspoken as ever. He continues to remind us of the importance of history to guide our moral compass into the future. In an interview last November, he was asked about the war in Ukraine and the uptick in antisemitic incidents around the globe? “The world has still not learned the lessons of Nuremberg.”
Immigrating from Hungary at 10 months old, Ferencz grew up in the rough and tumble “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood in New York. An uncle told Ben, “You’ll either be a good lawyer or a good crook.” Thankfully, Ferencz chose the former. He studied hard and after graduating from the City College of New York on a full scholarship, went on to attend Harvard Law School.
After graduating Harvard, he enlisted in the Army during World War II, serving under General George S. Patton. Ben landed on the beaches of Normandy, and fought the Battle of the Bulge. He fought in every major European campaign and participated in or arrived shortly after the liberation of the concentration camps of Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Flossenburg,and Ebensee.
Soon after the liberation of each camp, Ben secured Nazi documents that ultimately helped bring justice to the world.
“My goal was clear: Grab the documents,” he recalled. “I headed straight to the main office and closed it off. ‘Nobody goes in or out without my permission. No German, no American — nobody. I want complete control of the archives,’ which I got.”
"The scenes are really indescribable to the rational human mind. It's something you don't forget quickly, or ever, " he told Canada’s CBC news.
Shortly after his discharge as an Infantry Sergeant, Ben was recruited from his New York law practice to help prosecute the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Following the end of World War II, the Nuremberg trials were a series of military tribunals held by the Allied forces to prosecute prominent leaders of Nazi Germany for their roles in the Holocaust and other war crimes.
Ferencz, while only 27 years old, became Chief Prosecutor for the United States in The Einsatzgruppen Case, which the Associated Press called "the biggest murder trial in history." "I condemned genocide and appealed for a rule of law that would protect the right of everyone to live in peace and dignity regardless of race or creed," said Ferencz. Twenty-two defendants were charged with murdering over a million people. All were convicted. Thirteen were sentenced to death.
“[The Trials] led to my determination that the real answer to the problem is to end war-making. I know how difficult that is.”“The world remains a very dangerous place. New weapons of devastating power threaten human survival directly, and, through their destabilizing effects on societies, indirectly. Many young people in many lands are ready to kill and be killed for the particular cause of their ideology or nation. Despite such obstacles, the spirit of Nuremberg lives on. It is increasingly recognized that international disputes can and must be settled without the use of armed might,” Ferencz wrote in 2010.
In 2016, Ferencz helped create the Ferencz International Justice Initiative at the United States Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. His $1 million donation is an annual gift renewable for up to $10 million, generated from his life savings.
“I came into the world as a poor boy. I want to go out of this world as a poor boy,” he told the Washington Post. “My resolve is to give it all back in gratitude for the opportunity I’ve had in the United States. I have been trying with my life, ever since I can remember, to try and create a more peaceful and humane world. And I want the money to go for that purpose. I realize it will not happen in my lifetime, because I’m trying to reverse thousands of years of tradition and glorification of war.”
But he is not ready to stop. Self-proclaimed to be too busy “trying to save the world,” Ferencz, who resides in Delray Beach, Florida, was known to have been doing 100 pushups and swimming every day well into his 90s.
In December, he was selected to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest civilian honor.
“I was damn lucky to live this long,” said Ferencz, who turns 103 in March. “I hope that I’ve done some good during that lifetime.”