Hero chief Nuremberg prosecutor, 100, reveals ‘hell’ of Nazi camps after WW2
At 100 years old, Benjamin Ferencz is the last surviving prosecutor of the biggest murder case in history: the Nuremberg trials, held in the wake of the Second World War to mete out justice to those responsible for the evils of the Holocaust.
Astonishingly, it was his very first case.
At just 27, he was tasked with gathering evidence but when 22 members of the Einsatzgruppen – death squads who killed over a million Jews and other minorities – were charged, he offered to lead the prosecution for an overwhelmed legal team.
Benjamin’s family were Jewish immigrants who had left Transylvania for New York. His legal studies at Harvard were interrupted by war service. He survived every major battle in Europe, including Normandy.
In 1944, he was tasked with setting up a Nazi war crimes branch and witnessed horrific scenes at concentration camps. While locating evidence, he dug up bodies from shallow graves, some with his bare hands.
Here, in extracts from his new book Parting Words – 9 Lessons for a Remarkable Life, he describes what he saw there, and the subsequent trial which would shape his life.
I went to about 10 camps, including Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Flossenbürg and Ebensee. The scenes of death and inhumanity were identical. I remember it very, very vividly. It is difficult to describe even now.
You carry that with you for the rest of your life. The total chaos. The battle still raging. Bodies lying all over the ground, some dead, some wounded, begging, weak, pleading with their eyes for something.
I’ve seen piles of skin and bones stacked up like cordwood, helpless skeletons with diarrhoea, dysentery, typhus, TB and pneumonia. I’ve seen people crawling through garbage like rats, digging with their hands for a piece of bread or a morsel to eat. I’ve seen the crematorium going with bodies shovelled in, their ashes spread on the field like fertilizer.
It was as if I had peered into hell. So I devised a system. I pretended it didn’t exist.
Normally I’m a pretty rational guy, but I would say to myself, ‘It’s not real, it’s not real, it’s not real.’ I would pretend it was part of a show of some kind.
What else could I do? I couldn’t sit down and start screaming and tearing my hair out, or grab some German and beat him over the head with a hammer.
I told myself to do my job. You could always count on the Germans for their records; they were meticulous note-takers. I could see what had gone on in the camp.
The list of inmates, their numbers when they were first sent to Auschwitz to be registered, which transport they were with and when the first transport arrived from Hungary, Romania, or Germany. Of course, most of them were already dead.
With that information I would go back to my typewriter and write up a report of what I had seen and who were the people responsible: who was in charge of the camp, how many people were killed, who the guards there had been. On that basis, we’d send out arrest orders to have them picked up.
Do your job: seize the evidence and move on to the next camp. Move on.
It was that attitude which kept me from going stark raving mad.
I distinctly remember meeting an inmate who worked at Buchenwald, who I believe was a French national. ‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ he said. ‘Come with me.’ He took a shovel and went to the perimeter of the camp, which was a barbed-wire fence, and we dug up a box. From it he took out a number of little booklets, which looked like passports.
The SS carried the books, and every time they showed up for an evening meeting of the camp’s social club, where they would drink and frolic, they had to present their booklet and get a stamp in there.
When the booklet was filled with 50 stamps, this inmate who worked in the office was told to dispose of the old one. But instead of destroying them, he hid them. He knew, in an act of faith, that there would be a day of reckoning. This man’s gift was a goldmine for me. These guys, the perpetrators and accomplices, were all going to tell me they hadn’t been there, but I had the dates they showed up for the club, I had their number, I knew who they were.
Often in the camps the remaining SS would be fleeing the scene.
Most of the inmates were too sick or weak to move, but there were still a number of them who were up and about. In one camp I saw them catch one of the guards and begin to beat him. When he was semi-conscious, they put him on a gurney, dragged him to the crematorium, put him in and began to cook him. They left him in there for a while, but not enough to kill him. They dragged him out, beat him up again and put him back in again.
They did that three or four times until he was sufficiently well baked and surely dead. I was initially tasked with finding the evidence to put on 12 trials, which dealt specifically with branches of German government and society.
First were the doctors who performed medical experiments on concentration camp victims; then we had the lawyers who perverted the law by convicting people for political purposes.
We had the industrialists who provided the funds to build the camps so they would have slave labour; the diplomats who paved the way for Hitler’s wars of aggression; the military, and the Stormtroopers themselves who did the actual killing.
Then something happened. It must have been the spring of 1947 when one of our diligent researchers, Frederic S. Burin, burst excitedly into my office.
He handed me a collection of reports – marked top secret. The reports had been sent by the Gestapo office in Berlin to perhaps 100 top officials of the Nazi regime.
Many generals were on the distribution list, along with high-ranking leaders of the Third Reich. The daily reports, called ‘Reports of Events in the Soviet Union’, were from a unit called Einsatzgruppen, which turned out to be an SS extermination squad. They had been organised by Göring and others to kill all the Jews in the Soviet Union and any surrounding countries in Europe. The reports were a chronology of how many civilians those units had killed as part of Hitler’s ‘Total War’.
When I passed the figure of one million, I stopped adding. The Einsatzgruppen would line up entire villages in front of mass graves and gun them down.
I booked the next plane to Nuremberg and said ‘You’ve got to put on another trial. We can’t let these murderers go!’ In desperation, I suggested that if no one else was available I could do the job myself. And so it came to pass that little Benny boy from Transylvania became the chief prosecutor of the biggest murder trial in human history.
I was 27 years old when the case opened in the main courtroom of the partially restored Palace of Justice. It was my first-ever case. There were 3,000 members of the Einsatzgruppen who spent practically every day on the Eastern Front murdering innocent men, women, and children.
I decided the number that could be tried was limited to the number of seats in the dock: 22.
I selected defendants on the basis of three important characteristics: whether we had them in custody, their rank and education.
I decided that no enlisted men would be prosecuted – I wanted only the highest-ranking and most educated. I charged them with genocide, because I knew the man who coined the term – a Polish refugee lawyer named Rafael Lemkin, who fled from his homeland after his entire family had been murdered by the Nazis.
I also charged the defendants with mass murder and crimes against humanity.
I concluded very quickly that if the trial was to have any meaning it couldn’t merely be about justice. There was no way for the scales of justice to balance this. I knew that the trial had to stand for something more if it was going to have any significance.
The people murdered were murdered simply because they didn’t share the race, religion or ideology of their executioners.
I needed to help deter the repetition of such horrors in the future, and lay the foundations for a more humane world. I needed to ask for the right of all people to be protected by law, so they can enjoy a life of peace and dignity. All the defendants without exception pleaded not guilty. There was no remorse or regret.
I’m frequently asked if I was nervous. I was an inexperienced young lawyer, facing Germany’s mass killers, including six SS generals who would have shot me on sight.
But I wasn’t nervous, I was indignant. I didn’t kill anybody – they did, and they knew I could prove it. I rested the prosecution’s case in two days. I had all I had to say. ‘Are you this guy? Is this your signature? Then you’re damn lying.’
I concluded by saying, ‘The defendants in the dock were the cruel executioners whose terror wrote the blackest page in human history. Death was their tool and life their toy. If these men be immune, then law has lost its meaning and man must live in fear.’
We moved on to 136 days of defence.
The most interesting, and repulsive, argument in defense of genocide was put forward by the lead defendant, SS general Dr Otto Ohlendorf.
The reports stated that his unit, under his command, killed 90,000 Jews. He was asked if it was true and said the men were inclined to exaggerate their body count. They wanted to show they killed more than they actually killed. Once the figure was corrected to 70,000, he was content.
Ohlendorf confirmed the Jews were killed simply because they were Jews. In the manner of a schoolteacher, he explained that those with Gypsy blood were unreliable and might help the enemy, and therefore had to be killed too.
If the Jewish children learned their parents had been killed, they would grow up to become enemies of Germany, so they too had to be killed.
For Ohlendorf, war called for the suspension of humanitarian rules. His reasoning was a recipe for world catastrophe, and he was sentenced to death by hanging.
Many others received a similar fate.
Each time I heard that sentence, it was like a hammer blow that shocked my brain. I had never asked for the death penalty. I felt that it might trivialise the magnitude of the crimes by suggesting they could be settled by the execution of a handful.
Others were sentenced to life imprisonment or long prison terms.
Ohlendorf was the only defendant who I ever talked to man-to-man, after he was sentenced to death.
I went down to the prison where he was, right under the courthouse. I asked him in German if there was anything I could do for him. Some small favour, perhaps? A message I could relay to his family?
He said that I would see that he was right.
The man had learned nothing and regretted nothing. I hadn’t gone down there to hear that. I looked him in the eye, said gently in English, ‘Goodbye, Mr Ohlendorf,’ and slammed the door in his face.
I was invited to attend the hanging.
I’m 100 years old now, and I’m very gratified with the amount of progress I’ve seen.
I was told it would never happen, but it’s happening, and we’re seeing improvements.
Is it satisfactory? Of course not. Will it be satisfactory eventually? Of course it will.
We’ve come further than I could have imagined. Progress is real.