By Mike Schneider, Associated Press
Ben Ferenich, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials, who prosecuted the Nazis for genocidal war crimes and was among the first outside witnesses to document atrocities committed in Nazi labor and concentration camps, died. He had just turned 103 in March.
Ferench died Friday night in Boynton Beach, Fla., according to Saint John’s University law professor John Barrett, who runs a blog about the Nuremberg trials. The American Holocaust Museum in Washington also confirmed the death.
“Today the world lost a leader in the pursuit of justice for the victims of genocide and related crimes,” the museum wrote on Twitter.
Ferenc was born in Transylvania in 1920, and as a child emigrated with his parents to New York to escape rampant anti-Semitism. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Ferencs joined the US Army just in time to take part in the Normandy invasion during World War II. Using his legal background, he becomes an investigator for Nazi war crimes against American soldiers as part of the new war crimes division of the Judge Counsel’s office.
When American intelligence reports described soldiers encountering large groups of starving people in Nazi camps watched by SS guards, Ferencs followed up with visits, first at the Ohrdruf labor camp in Germany and then at the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp. In those camps and others later, he found corpses “piled up like cordwood” and “helpless skeletons stricken with diarrhoea, dysentery, typhus, tuberculosis, pneumonia and other diseases, vomiting in their lice-infested beds or on the floor with their pitiful eyes only asking for help,” Ferensch wrote in an account. for his life.
“The Buchenwald concentration camp was a boarding house of unspeakable horrors,” Ferensch wrote. “There is no doubt that I was indelibly traumatized by my experience as a war crimes investigator in Nazi extermination centers. I still try not to talk or think about the details.”
Sometime near the end of the war, Ferenich was sent to Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps to search for incriminating documents but returned empty-handed.
After the war, Ferench was honorably discharged from the US Army and returned to New York to begin practicing law. But this did not last long. Because of his experience as a war crimes investigator, he was recruited to help prosecute Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials, which began under the leadership of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. Before leaving for Germany, he married his childhood sweetheart, Gertrude.
At the age of 27, with no previous trial experience, Ferencs became the prosecutor in the 1947 case in which 22 former leaders were accused of the murders of more than a million Jews, Romanians, and other enemies of the Third Reich in Eastern Europe. Rather than relying on witnesses, Ferenich relied mostly on official German documents to present his case. All of the accused were found guilty, and more than a dozen were sentenced to be hanged even though Ferench did not seek the death penalty.
“At the beginning of April 1948,” he wrote, “when the long legal verdict was read, I felt justified.” “Our pleas to protect humanity through the rule of law have been upheld.”
With the war crimes trials over, Ferens went on to work with a range of Jewish charitable organizations to help Holocaust survivors recover property, homes, businesses, artwork, Torah scrolls, and other Jewish religious items confiscated from them by the Nazis. . He also later assisted in negotiations that would lead to compensation for Nazi victims.
In subsequent decades, Ferencs advocated the creation of an international tribunal that could prosecute any government leader for war crimes. These 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 get involved.
Ferenc is survived by one son and three daughters. His wife passed away in 2019.
Follow Mike Schneider on Twitter at @MikeSchneiderAP