Ben Ferenc, the last surviving prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials. Answered the phone in bright spirits. “Good morning,” she called out. “Ask your questions.”
Nearly 75 years have passed since the conviction of 22. Nazi death squad commanders responsible for the murder of more. Than 1 million Jews and others. The trial marked the first time in history that mass murderers were tried for war crimes. And Ferenc was only 27 years old at the time. He was instrumental in establishing reparations for Holocaust survivors. And the creation of the International Criminal Court in The Hague.
Now he sits at his desk in Delray Beach, Florida, a 102-year-old man with intelligence. And a remarkable memory answering a reporter’s questions.
What were the judge’s final words to the capital defendant after sentencing a man to death in 1948? “Goodbye, Mr. Ohlendorf.”
What did he think about the war in Ukraine and the rise of anti-Semitism around the world? “The world has not yet learned the lessons of Nuremberg.”
What was the secret of living so long? “Good luck!”
But not long after that interview in November, Ferenc’s health took a turn for the worse.
Her cheeks became more hollow. His thoughts became more confused. He stopped checking his email.
“He declined very quickly,” his son Don said last week. “But he is still in good spirits, still has his sense of humor and. While not very tired, is still perfectly tolerant and reasonable.”
As the number of Holocaust survivors dwindles around the world. Ben Ferenc represents a link to a dark chapter in history.
What was described as “the biggest murder trial in history.” was actually Ferenc’s first case.
The son of Hungarian Jews, he was 10 months old. When his family immigrated to the United States in 1920 and settled in New York City. He grew up poor on the rough streets of Hell’s Kitchen where his father worked as a house painter’s janitor.
Ferenc attended the City College of New York. Which was free for bright immigrants, earned a scholarship to Harvard Law School. And enlisted in the Army after graduation as World War II engulfed Europe.
He landed on the beaches of Normandy and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. As Allied forces closed in on the center of Nazi power in Berlin. He was transferred to a unit responsible for gathering evidence of war crimes.
Ferenc traveled to many concentration camps — Buchenwald. Mauthaus, Flossenberg, Ebensee — often within days and sometimes within hours of their liberation. The scene he saw would haunt him for the rest of his life.
Skeletal figures with hollow eyes beg for help — many too weak or too ill. Others are crawling around garbage heaps, looking for scraps of food.
and corpses. Many corpses – in some cases still piled up like logs in front of burning crematoriums.
“Scary as hell,” Ferenc said. “I had to stop letting it get to me emotionally.”
He had a specific task. The Nazi were well known for keeping detailed records. Feren was tasked with securing them before destroying them.
“My goal was clear: to seize the documents,” he recalled. “I went straight to the main office and closed it. No one goes in or out without my permission. Germans, Americans—nobody. I want full control of the archives, which I’ve got.”
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Ferenc said it took a lot of effort to control his emotions.
“I knew what I was seeing was terrible,” he said.
He told himself: “Just keep working, Benny. Just get your proof. And get your ass out of there.”
Ferenc and his men collected thousands of documents in camps. And facilities in Berlin. They included detailed reports on the Einsatzgruppen. Special SS units that roamed Nazi-occupied Europe and killed more. Than 1 million people.
The Nazis’ studious accounting would soon determine. The fate of some of Hitler’s most notorious men.