Last Surviving Nuremberg Prosecutor Is Still Fighting for 'Law Not War'

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on September 06, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

One of Ben Ferencz's most important cases was also his first. He was 27 years old. It was 1947. Ferencz, fresh from fighting World War II, was made chief prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen Case, part of the post-war Nuremburg trials. It was his first trial.

Ferencz won, obtaining convictions for 22 Nazi leaders who had organized and led death squads throughout Europe, killing more than one million people. That trial alone could have cemented his legacy. Or, if not the Nuremberg trials, his decades of practice in international law. Or his role in founding the International Criminal Court. But, Ferencz doesn't think that's enough. To help cement his legacy, the 98-year-old prosecutor is donating up to $10 million to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to promote world peace and the rule of law.

Transylvania to Harvard Law

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremburg trials, recounts his humble origins:

"I was born in a small village in Transylvania in the Carpathian Mountains. It was a small house with a thatched roof, no running water, no electricity," and, he jokes, "not even a television."

When Ferencz was just ten months old, his family fled to New York in order to escape anti-Semitic persecution. Ferencz studied at City College, then Harvard Law School, and joined the U.S. Army shortly after earning his J.D. As the war drew to a close, Ferencz was tasked with investigating concentration camps, and eventually named chief prosecutor for the Einsatzgruppen Case.

According to the Post's Karen Heller:

He presented precisely one witness, who certified Nazi documents that recorded the slaughter of Jews, gypsies and other civilians with a banker's efficiency.

"They were so sure they were going to win! The Germans were great at documentation, thank you very much," Ferencz says, clapping his hands.

"Death was their tool and life their toy," he told the judge in the Palace of Justice's quiet, wood-paneled courtroom. "If these men be immune, then law has lost its meaning, and man must live in fear."

The Ferencz International Justice Initiative

After the Nuremberg trials, Ferencz continued to fight for the victims of the Nazis, urging restitution for WWII victims and lobbying for the creation of the International Criminal Court. "My hope is that people will not be content to look at the past and say never again, and then do nothing," he told Heller. "So I am taking the measures for preventing it from ever happening again."

Ferencz is giving up to $10 million to the Holocaust Museum for the creation of the Ferencz International Justice Initiative. That Initiative seeks to strengthen international law and use "international justice to deter, prevent and respond to mass atrocities," according to the Holocaust Museum. "I came into the world a poor boy. I want to go out of this world a poor boy," Ferencz says. "My resolve is to give it all back in gratitude for the opportunity I've had in the United States."

"Law not war, that's my motto. Simple. Three words," Ferencz told the Post. "It causes me pain to see the world as it is. But not to do anything, not to try, that would be a wrong."

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