The Last Man at Nuremberg

The life of 95-year-old Benjamin Ferencz, the only living prosecutor from the war-crime trials that followed the Holocaust
A visitor looks at an exhibit at Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial and museum. (Reuters)

Benjamin Ferencz was 27 when the Einsatzgruppen trial began in 1947. There were 22 defendants, all men, all members of the German SS. “One of the counsel has characterized this trial as the biggest murder trial in history,” the military tribunal wrote. “In this case, the defendants are not … charged with sitting in an office hundreds and thousands of miles away from the slaughter.… These men were in the field actively superintending, controlling, directing, and taking an active part in the bloody harvest.” Put simply, the Einsatzgruppen were exterminators: Their squads traveled to towns throughout Eastern Europe, rounding up Jews and shooting them with mechanized efficiency. Some mass graves were filled with hundreds of bodies; others, thousands.

Otto Ohlendorf, Paul Blobel, and almost two dozen others led these divisions of Hitler’s army; after the war, they were indicted for crimes against humanity. Benjamin Ferencz was 27, and he was the chief prosecutor responsible for convicting 22 men on trial for murdering 1 million men, women, and children.

Benjamin Ferencz at the Einsatzgruppen trial at Nuremberg.

In the nearly 70 years since he took part in the trials at Nuremberg, Ferencz has lived a remarkable life. He led efforts to return property to Holocaust survivors after the war and participated in reparations negotiations between Israel and West Germany. He wrote multiple books, including a hefty, two-volume tome outlining his ideas for the body that would later become the International Criminal Court. He fathered four children.

Now he’s 95, and tired. “I’m getting old,” he said. “I’m running out of steam. I need help from young people.”

To be clear, nothing about Ferencz’s demeanor indicates a deficiency of steam. I met him outside of a convention center in Washington, D.C. on a sunny spring day, and as we went through a metal detector inside, he happily showed off his suspenders for the security guard to check. “How old are you? You get around pretty well,” the guard said. “For an old guy,” Ferencz replied. He pointed a thumb at me. “This is my girlfriend,” he added.

We sat on a bench in the sun, and there, he told me about the bodies at Buchenwald. “I saw crematoria still going, the bodies starved, lying dying, on the ground. I’ve seen the horrors of war more than can be adequately described.” He spoke clearly and without much emotion. I heard familiar phrases that stuck out from previous interviews I had read in preparation for our conversation. This was how he had learned to tell his story: straightforward, detached, honest but without too much detail. This, I think, is how he has survived 70 years of recalling exactly what it looks like when thousands of murdered Jews are laid out side-by-side, stacked in piles.

After fighting with an anti-aircraft artillery battalion in the U.S. army during World War II, Ferencz was assigned to General George Patton’s office and tasked with helping to establish a war-crimes division. This was not a typical mission, for one good reason: The army had never had a war-crimes division before.

As part of this effort, Ferencz joined the forces that liberated a number of concentration camps in what was then Germany, including Buchenwald and Mauthausen. He collected documentation: the number of bodies, and where they were located; the sanitary conditions of the camps; the files left behind by army officials, including ledgers recording who had died, and when. It was this evidence that eventually led to the speedy conviction of the Einsatzgruppen commanders. “I was able to rest my case after two days without calling a single witness—the top-secret documents were indisputable,” Ferencz said.

But without his intervention, these men may have never been taken to trial. “The case had not been planned,” he said. “When we discovered this evidence, I brought it to General [Telford] Taylor, and I said we have to put on a new trial, and he said we can’t.” The Pentagon had already planned its schedule of trials, Taylor said, and the war-crimes division faced staffing shortages and budget limitations.

“I said, ‘We can’t let these mass murderers go free—I have the evidence here in my hands’. And he said, ‘Can you do it in addition to your other work? OK, you be the prosecutor.’”

Looking back, this anecdote seems outrageous, suggesting that the trials following the most extensive genocide in human history were haphazardly assigned to young, newly minted prosecutors. But this is what’s so remarkable about Ferencz’s career: Again and again, he has been asked to establish law and order in situations that had never been dealt with before on such a large scale. If it sounds like the army was making up trial procedures as it went along, that’s because, well, it was.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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