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Ben Ferenc, last living Nuremberg prosecutor, dies at 103

Ben Ferenc, the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials who prosecuted Nazis for genocidal war crimes — and was among the first outside witnesses to document the atrocities of Nazi labor and concentration camps — has died, his son confirmed to CBS News. He was just 103 years old in March.

Ferenc’s son, Don Ferenc, told CBS News that his father died peacefully on Friday in Boynton Beach, Florida. He was living in an assisted living facility, his son said.

When asked for a family statement, she said her father could be summed up with these words: “law is not war” and “never give up.”

The US Holocaust Museum in Washington also confirmed the death.

“Today the world lost a leader in the pursuit of justice for victims of genocide and related crimes,” the museum tweeted.

Today the world has lost a leader in the pursuit of justice for victims of genocide and related crimes. We mourn the death of Ben Ferenc – the last Nuremberg war crimes prosecutor. At the age of 27, with no prior trial experience, he pleaded guilty to 22 Nazis.

— US Holocaust Museum (@HolocaustMuseum) April 8, 2023

At age 27, with no prior trial experience, Ferenc became the lead prosecutor in a 1947 case in which 22 former Nazi commanders were accused of killing more than 1 million Jews, Gypsies and other enemies of the Third Reich in Eastern Europe.

Instead of relying on witnesses, Ferenc relied mostly on official German documents to make his case. All defendants were convicted, and more than a dozen were sentenced to death by hanging although Ferenc did not request the death penalty.

“I will tell you something very profound, which I learned after many years.” Ferenc says “60 Minutes” In a 2017 interview. “War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All war and all decent people.”

Ben Ferenc

Benjamin Berel Ferenc, the US Army’s chief prosecutor during the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II, appeared in Andre Singer’s 2014 documentary “Night Will Fall”.

Getty Images

Born in Transylvania in 1920, Ferenc immigrated to New York with his parents at a very young age to escape anti-Semitism. After graduating from Harvard Law School, Ferenc joined the US Army to take part in the Normandy invasion during World War II. Using his legal background, he became an investigator of Nazi war crimes against US soldiers as part of a new war crimes division in the Judge Advocate’s Office.

When U.S. intelligence reports described soldiers encountering large groups of starving people in Nazi camps guarded by SS guards, Ferenc visited first the Ohrdruf labor camp in Germany and then the infamous Buchenwald concentration camp. In that camp and others later, he saw corpses “piled up like cordwood” and “skeletons helpless with diarrhea, dysentery, typhus, tuberculosis, pneumonia, and other diseases, lying on the ground with only their pitiful eyes. Pleading for help,” Ferenc wrote in his wrote in an account of life.

“The Buchenwald concentration camp was a charnel house of unspeakable horror,” wrote Ferenc. “There is no doubt that I was incredibly traumatized by my experience as a war crimes investigator in a Nazi extermination center. I still try not to talk or think about the details.”

At one point towards the end of the war, Ferenc was sent to Adolf Hitler’s mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps to search for incriminating documents but returned empty-handed.

After the war, Ferenc was honorably discharged from the US Army and returned to New York to begin practicing law. But that was short lived. Because of his experience as a war crimes investigator, he was hired to help prosecute Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials, which began under the leadership of US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson. Before moving to Germany, he married his childhood sweetheart Gertrude.

As the war crimes trials closed, Ferenc went to work for a consortium of Jewish charity groups to help Holocaust survivors recover property, homes, businesses, artwork, Torah scrolls and other Jewish religious items confiscated from them by the Nazis. . He later assisted in negotiations that would lead to reparations for the Nazis.

In the following decades, Ferenc championed the creation of an international court that could try the leaders of any government for war crimes. Those dreams were realized in 2002 with the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, although its effectiveness has been limited by the failure of countries such as the United States to participate.

“I’m still fighting there,” Ferenc told “60 Minutes” in his 2017 interview. “And you know what keeps me going? I know I’m okay.”

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