This is Ben Ferencz, and at 97-years-old, he is the last man standing… literally, who prosecuted Nazis at the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II.
While watching Ferencz’s backstory on 60 Minutes, I thought, well, this will be a nice little profile about the past, but I was completely wrong.
Ferencz continues his fight for justice and imparts his wisdom to young students today!
On the June 30, 2019 installment of the show, I was humbled, not only by the past Ferencz has experienced, but his passion and commitment to seeking justice.
As Lesley Stahl reports, Ferencz is now a sturdy 99 years old, and… still going… still seeking justice, and he has an important message for the world.
“You’ve really seen evil,” Stahl tells him. “And look at you. You’re the sunniest man I’ve ever met. The most optimistic.”
“You oughta get some more friends,” Ferencz shoots back with a smile.
Ferencz was 27 years old when he was tapped by the military to help prosecute Nazi war criminals in the most high-profile murder trial in world history.
After graduating at Harvard, Stahl describes, Ferencz “…enlisted as a private in the Army. Part of an artillery battalion, he landed on the beach at Normandy and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Toward the end of the war, because of his legal training, he was transferred to a brand-new unit in General Patton’s Third Army, created to investigate war crimes. As U.S. forces liberated concentration camps, his job was to rush in and gather evidence. Ferencz told us he is still haunted by the things he saw. And the stories he heard in those camps.”
“Ferencz came home,” Stahl continues, “married his childhood sweetheart and vowed never to set foot in Germany again.”
However, Ferencz was called back to Germany by General Telford Taylor who was charged with prosecuting Nazi war crimes. Taylor asked the newly married G.I. “to direct a team of researchers in Berlin, one of whom found a cache of top-secret documents in the ruins of the German foreign ministry.
“He gave me a bunch of binders, four binders,” Ferencz said. “And these were daily reports from the Eastern Front– which unit entered which town, how many people they killed. It was classified, so many Jews, so many gypsies, so many others.”
“Ferencz had stumbled upon reports,” Stahl reports, “sent back to headquarters by secret SS units called Einsatzgruppen, or action groups. Their job had been to follow the German army as it invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and kill Communists, Gypsies and especially Jews.”
“They were 3,000 SS officers,” Ferencz describes, “trained for the purpose, and directed to kill without pity or remorse, every single Jewish man, woman, and child they could lay their hands on.”
However, “the trials were already underway, and prosecution staff was stretched thin. Taylor told Ferencz adding another trial was impossible,” Stahl says.
“I start screaming,” Ferencz told Stahl. “I said, ‘Look. I’ve got here mass murder, mass murder on an unparalleled scale.’ And he said, ‘Can you do this in addition to your other work?’ And I said, ‘Sure.’ He said, ‘OK. So you do it.’ ”
Shortly after, the 27-year-old Ferencz “became the chief prosecutor of 22 Einsatzgruppen commanders at trial number 9 at Nuremberg.”
With the evidence in hand, Ferencz was able to prove to the court, in stunning detail, the atrocities that took place at the hands of the Nazis. All 22 defendants were found guilty.
“Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage?” Ferencz asks. “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.”
With that belief in mind, Benjamin Ferencz spends the rest of his life “trying to deter war and war crimes by establishing an international court – like Nuremburg. He scored a victory when the international criminal court in The Hague was created in 1998. He delivered the closing argument in the court’s first case,” Stahl says.
Stahl calls him an idealist.
“I don’t think I’m an idealist,” Ferencz tells her. “I’m a realist. And I see the progress. The progress has been remarkable. Look at the emancipation of woman in my lifetime. You’re sitting here as a female. Look what’s happened to the same-sex marriages. To tell somebody a man can become a woman, a woman can become a man, and a man can marry a man, they would have said, ‘You’re crazy.’ But it’s a reality today. So the world is changing. And you shouldn’t– you know– be despairing because it’s never happened before. Nothing new ever happened before.”
Ferencz is dedicated, fierce and uncompromising when it comes to justice.
We should all be so passionate about seeking fairness and justice.
Note: I’m working on a long-term project and will not return until Tuesday.