The last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor at 97: “And you know what keeps me going? I know I’m right.”

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Revisiting the Nuremberg courtroom in 2012 (Photo: Adam Jones)

We were mesmerized by a recent 60 Minutes broadcast about 97-year-old Ben Ferencz, a Hungarian immigrant (barely five feet tall), raised in New York City with Yiddish as his native tongue, who by a series of twists, turns, and coincidences worthy of any Dickens novel, became a prosecutor in the Nuremberg trial for genocide.

Twenty-two SS officers responsible for the deaths of more than one million people would never have been successfully tried for genocide were it not for his efforts as the prosecutor of the biggest murder trial ever. The officers, in  Einsatzgruppen units, were charged with following the German army as it invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 to kill Communists, Gypsies and Jews. All were found guilty, and four were hanged. Ferencz says his goal from the outset was to affirm the rule of law and deter similar crimes from ever being committed again, and that has been his life’s work since.

He is the last Nuremberg prosecutor alive today. He is the author of an autobiography, Mémoires de Ben, procureur à Nuremberg et avocat de la paix mondiale, published in Paris in 2012. He is also the recipient of the 2009 Erasmus Prize.

From his CBS interview with Lesley Stahl:

Stahl: You know, you –  have seen the ugliest side of humanity.

Ferencz: Yes.

Stahl: You’ve really seen evil. And look at you. You’re the sunniest man I’ve ever met. The most optimistic.

Ferencz: You oughta get some more friends.

He recalls that the “defendants’ face were blank, all the time. Defendants – absolutely blank. They could – like, they’re waiting for a bus.” One claimed to have killed in self-defense. The killings of helpless people? “He was not ashamed of that. He was proud of that. He was carrying out his government’s instructions.”

Stahl: Did you meet a lot of people who perpetrated war crimes who would otherwise in your opinion have been just a normal, upstanding citizen?

Ferencz: Of course, is my answer. These men would never have been murderers had it not been for the war. These were people who could quote Goethe, who loved Wagner, who were polite –

Stahl: What turns a man into a savage beast like that?

Ferencz: He’s not a savage. He’s an intelligent, patriotic human being.

Stahl: He’s a savage when he does the murder though.

Ferencz: No. He’s a patriotic human being acting in the interest of his country, in his mind.

Stahl: You don’t think they turn into savages even for the act?

Ferencz: Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage? Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.

He remains optimistic, despite the endless repetition of genocides since World War II.

Stahl: Now, you’ve been at this for 50 years, if not more. We’ve had genocide since then.

Ferencz: Yes.

Stahl: In Cambodia—

Ferencz: Going on right this minute, yes.

Stahl: Going on right this minute in Sudan.

Ferencz: Yes.

Stahl: We’ve had Rwanda, we’ve had Bosnia. You’re not getting very far.

Ferencz: Well, don’t say that. People get discouraged. They should remember, from me, it takes courage not to be discouraged.

And so he goes on. He’s donating his life savings to a Genocide Prevention Initiative at the Holocaust Museum. He says he’s grateful for the life in the U.S., and wants to pay it forward:

Ferencz: So the world is changing. And you shouldn’t – you know – be despairing because it’s never happened before. Nothing new ever happened before.

Stahl: Ben—

Ferencz: We’re on a roll.

Stahl: I can’t—

Ferencz: We’re marching forward.

 Stahl: Ben? I’m sitting here listening to you. And you’re very wise. And you’re full of energy and passion.  And I can’t believe you’re 97 years old.

Ferencz: Well, I’m still a young man.

Stahl: Clearly, clearly.

Ferencz: And I’m still in there fighting.  And you know what keeps me going? I know I’m right.

Read his story here.

Postscript on 6/18 from one of our favorite medievalists, Jeff Sypeck: “I haven’t had many brushes with greatness, but I did have the honor of meeting Ben Ferencz a few years ago when my best friend convinced him to come speak to the undergraduates in his international-studies class. (Apparently he rarely responds to such invites, but he was in town for a conference and my friend has superhuman powers of persuasion.) Ferencz is one hell of a raconteur: He stunned the kids into silence when he discussed the techniques he used to intimidate the Einsatzgruppen during interrogations–and how he visits their graves once in a while.

“Several students recognized that they were in the presence of living history, so Ferencz later held court on a bench on the campus green for more than an hour. He posed unsolvable moral quandaries to students; he charmed us all with his wit, which mingled old-fashioned dignity with the wryness of a bygone New York; and he beguiled and delighted my friend’s infant son, who gave him cause to crack a couple of disarming potty jokes. He was the sharpest nonagenarian I’ve ever met, and we all could have listened to him for hours. If he’s not the household name he should be, I suspect that’s because his activism, his sunny demeanor, and his trenchant sense of humor don’t add up to someone who fits into easy political categories–my favorite kind of person. Face to face, he’s as wonderfully unpredictable as he is principled; it was a privilege simply to sit there and listen.”


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2 Responses to “The last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor at 97: “And you know what keeps me going? I know I’m right.””

  1. Jeff S. Says:

    I haven’t had many brushes with greatness, but I did have the honor of meeting Ben Ferencz a few years ago when my best friend convinced him to come speak to the undergraduates in his international-studies class. (Apparently he rarely responds to such invites, but he was in town for a conference and my friend has superhuman powers of persuasion.) Ferencz is one hell of a raconteur: He stunned the kids into silence when he discussed the techniques he used to intimidate the Einsatzgruppen during interrogations–and how he visits their graves once in a while.

    Several students recognized that they were in the presence of living history, so Ferencz later held court on a bench on the campus green for more than an hour. He posed unsolvable moral quandaries to students; he charmed us all with his wit, which mingled old-fashioned dignity with the wryness of a bygone New York; and he beguiled and delighted my friend’s infant son, who gave him cause to crack a couple of disarming potty jokes. He was the sharpest nonagenarian I’ve ever met, and we all could have listened to him for hours. If he’s not the household name he should be, I suspect that’s because his activism, his sunny demeanor, and his trenchant sense of humor don’t add up to someone who fits into easy political categories–my favorite kind of person. Face to face, he’s as wonderfully unpredictable as he is principled; it was a privilege simply to sit there and listen.

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thanks for this, Jeff! I’m adding this as a postscript. Wish I’d been there!

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