Nathan Abrams reviews Parting Words by Benjamin Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor for the Nuremberg war crimes trials.
The American Jewish lawyer, Benjamin Ferencz has had a remarkable life. His career, which spanned more than seven decades, is a classic rags to riches story. From miserable poverty, he became the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials in 1947 and led efforts to return property to Holocaust survivors after the war, taking part in reparations negotiations between Israel and West Germany. He was also central to the establishment of the International Criminal Court. He has received a multitude of awards and medals and has been called ‘an icon in international criminal justice’ and the ‘personification of the international do-gooder’. He was the subject of a Netflix documentary called Prosecuting Evil.
This short book, which recounts his life, is not an autobiography in the usual sense. Rather, it takes the form of nine lessons based on a series of interviews with The Guardian journalist and reporter Nadia Khomami. It is, he admits, short because, being in his hundredth year, it may be his last hence the title, Parting Words.
Ferencz was born into a Jewish family in Transylvania with the Yiddish name Berrel in 1920 in a cottage with no running water, toilet, or electricity. It only had one level and an attic. To get water, the family had to walk to a well in the centre of town. To escape the prevailing antisemitism of both Romanian and Hungary, his family emigrated to America when he was nine months old.
His father was a one-eyed shoemaker, but he was unable to speak English and barely literate. Homeless and penniless, he got a job as a janitor tending apartment houses on 56th Street in the district known as Hell’s Kitchen where the family lived in the underground cell of one of the apartments. Benjamin recalls being hungry all the time. During Prohibition, his father, who was known as ‘Joe the Janitor’, progressed from bootmaker to bootlegger, distilling his own pulp of boiled potatoes in their basement.
Ferencz worked hard to escape conditions of poverty. The odds were against him: he couldn’t speak English, his parents had never read a book and he did not know anybody who had been to college. Because Benjamin still could only speak Yiddish when it was time to begin school, aged six, he had to wait until he had learnt English two years later that he began formal education. Following high school, he enrolled at City College, New York (CCNY), known as the ‘poor man’s Harvard’, majoring in sociology and social sciences. Given what he had grown up with in Hell’s Kitchen, he wanted to prevent juvenile delinquency.
From CCNY, Ferencz won a scholarship to Harvard Law School where he was still a poor Jewish boy from New York living with another poor Jewish boy from City College because neither of them could afford the rent of $8 a week alone. Still poor, he worked as a busser in the cafeteria of the Divinity School giving him the prime choice of people’s leftovers.
Enlisted during World War II, he fought in the European theatre, surviving every major battle. He landed on the beaches of Normandy, broke through the German defences on the Maginot and Siegfried Lines, he crossed the Rhine at Remagen, and took part in the Battle of the Bulge at Bastogne. His survival was down to sheer good luck and because of his short stature. Being only 5’4 meant the bullets went over his head.
In 1944, he was tasked with setting up a new war crimes branch and he was present at or arrived soon after the liberation of the camps at Buchenwald, Flossenberg, Mauthausen, and Ebensee in search of evidence of Nazi crimes to present at trial. He dug up bodies from shallow graves sometimes with his bare hands.
Ferencz provides a fascinating insight into the Nuremberg Trials. The sheer number of guilty men presented an early logistical problem. Because there were 3,000 men in the Einsatzgruppen — the Nazi extermination squads responsible for the deaths of more than 1 million Jews and other minorities — and he could not try them all, Ferencz decided to limit the number of defendants to the number of spaces in the dock which was 22 to be selected based on three important characteristics: whether they were in custody, their rank, and their education. He wanted only the highest-ranking and the most educated — they needed to have at least a doctoral degree. He never asked for the death penalty because he felt that it might trivialize the size of their crimes by suggesting they could be settled by the execution of a handful. About General Ohlendorf, Ferencz says he felt sorry for him and declined to attend his hanging.
As he tells it, ‘little Benny boy from Transylvania became the chief prosecutor of the biggest murder trial in human history’ aged 27 when the case opened in the main courtroom of the partly restored Palace of Justice. It was his first-ever case and he was an inexperienced young lawyer facing Germany’s mass killers including six SS generals. But he wasn’t nervous by his own recollection, he was indignant.
Nor was he driven by vengeance; rather his slogan was ‘law not war’. Despite what he experienced in Europe he wrote, ‘vengeance is a horrible thing’ and in his opening statement at Nuremberg, he said ‘vengeance is not our goal’. He adds in the book, ‘It is a human thing to want vengeance, but we must struggle against it.’ Because he didn’t want his Jewishness to colour the trial as Jewish vengeance, he gave the cross-examination of the lead defendant who killed 90000 Jews to a colleague.
Strangely, Ferencz took his newly-married bride with him on honeymoon to Nuremberg and he described his time there as a ‘a great fun time’. ‘I got the reputation of a man who performs miracles. My fame and popularity in Nuremberg wasn’t based upon my prosecuting the biggest murderers in history in the shortest possible time, but my mysterious ability to provide unlimited free beer to all the lawyers and their friends.’
He struggled to find work afterwards. The big law firms told him, ‘if we ever get to hang a Nazi, we will call you’. Eventually, he built up a successful practice, donating millions of dollars to the Holocaust Museum Genocide Prevention Center.
Ferencz describes his greatest achievement as what he did in connection with compensation for the survivors of Nazi persecution. Whether we can learn from the nine lessons, Ferencz has provided in this remarkable book, he certainly has had a remarkable life.
Parting Words: 9 lessons for a remarkable life is published by Little, Brown Book Group, priced £9.99.
All images by https://benferencz.org/