Last Friday, Benjamin Ferencz – one of our great role models – died at age 103. He was the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials and a longtime champion of human rights and international criminal law.
As the son of illiterate migrants, he made his way to Harvard law school and, at just 27 years of age, served as the youngest prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials. He spent much of his life crusading for an international criminal court and for laws to end wars of aggression.
With his wit and charm, he was a source of inspiration and a tireless advocate of strong international bodies for the prosecution of human rights violations.
In 2021, we put on a film series in his honor, and HRFFB Director Anna Ramskogler-Witt conducted an interview with him.
Benjamin Ferencz: A lifetime dedicated to peace and humanity
As a young lawyer, Benjamin Ferencz was sent to concentration camps to collect evidence. In 1947, at only 27 years of age, he became one of the chief prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials. Since then, he has dedicated his life to justice.
Benjamin Ferencz was the last living chief prosecutor from the Nuremberg Trials. He is still committed to international law, even today. "I can't give up because I know I’m right. I don't know how much longer I can do this. But as long as I can, I will," Ferencz says.
WATCHERS OF THE SKY
a film by Edet Belzberg
120 min | US | 2014 | English
WATCHERS OF THE SKY takes you on a provocative journey from Nuremberg to The Hague, Bosnia to Darfur, criminality to justice, and apathy to action.
The Harvard graduate was shaped by his experiences in World War II and later in postwar Germany. Before indicting twenty-four of the 3,000 or so members of the SS Einsatzgruppen in one of the largest murder trials of our time, he himself served as an American soldier.
Born to Jewish parents in the Transylvanian Carpathians, formerly part of Hungary and now Romania, Ferencz grew up in New York in poverty. Today, he says of his time in postwar Germany, “What hurt me most about my work in Germany was that no one ever came to me and said, ‘Hey Ben, you’re Jewish.’ I’m sorry for what we did.’ No one. Not one person.”
Not revenge, but justice
Still, Ferencz’s objective is not to get revenge against the war criminals. “I know that not all Germans are evil. On the contrary: war can make people evil.” What Ferencz wants is a world of justice without war.
“I work non-stop, all the time. It's a trauma. I can't stop doing it.” As he speaks, Ferencz points to his desk in his Florida home. It’s littered with stacks of papers and books just waiting for him to edit and read them.
Benjamin Ferencz has two simple yet powerful pieces of advice for young people: “Law not war,” and “Never give up, never give in and never give up!”
Text: Helena Düll