97-year-old Nuremberg trials prosecutor still pushes for peace
Ferencz wants to see the end to war’s glorification.
Benjamin Ferencz’s opening statement at the Nuremberg trials projected onto a large screen during his keynote address at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s 25th anniversary dinner on Jan. 30.
His message of peace and unity echoed through the Boca West Country Club the same way it has resonated throughout the world for decades.
“I hope people recognize that war-making is genocide,” Ferencz said. “We need to stop the glorification of war and work for the glorification of peace.”
Ferencz, of Delray Beach, was 27 when he made his opening statement that led to one of the world’s first convictions of crimes against humanity of Nazi perpetrators at the Nuremberg trials. Now, he’s 97, and the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor from the trial that condemned genocide and appealed for a rule of law that would protect everyone indiscriminately.
Hi s keynote address at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s What You Do Matters dinner was full of history and hope.
“Seeing him on stage was such a powerful moment for me, and for the entire audience,” said Robert Slatoff, an attorney who lives and works in Boca Raton. “During his speech, I felt as though I was directly connected to a critical part of history, and that feeling immediately reinforced the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s message that ‘what you do matters.’ What each of us does truly matters.”
The Nuremberg trials were a series of military tribunals held by the allied forces under international law and the laws of war after World War II. The trials prosecuted prominent members of Nazi Germany, who planned, carried out, or otherwise participated in the Holocaust and other war crimes. The trials were held in the city of Nuremberg, Germany.
Ferencz, who does 100 push-ups every morning and says, he “won’t be bullied by anybody,” has fought for antiwar legislation ever since the dark times of World War II. Although he’s happy with the progress that’s been made, he feels we have a long way to go to achieve a peaceful balance on the planet.
“I’m a realistic optimist,” he said. “I see the difficulties and they’re quite enormous, but I’m an optimist because I’ve seen the progress and it’s been fantastic. The Wright Brothers learned to fly a plane, we landed on the moon and ended slavery.”
Ferencz was born in a small village in Transylvania in the Carpathian Mountains. He said it was a small house with no running water and no electricity.
He was an investigator of Nazi war crimes after World War II and the chief prosecutor for the United States Army at the Einsatzgruppen trial, one of the 12 military trials held by the U.S. authorities at Nuremberg.
Later, he became an advocate of the establishment of an international rule of law and of an International Criminal Court. From 1985 to 1996, he was adjunct professor of international law at Pace University in New York.
Ferencz, who was profiled on “60 Minutes,” lives by a three-word slogan: “Law not war.” It’s at the top of his website, benferencz.org. A strong supporter of the International Criminal Court, Ferencz advocates steps to replace the rule of force with the rule of law.
“Glorification of was has gotten too dangerous in the cyberspace age,” Ferencz said. “Survival of the human race depends on the progress and education of young people.”
Last year, Ferencz invested in the future of genocide prevention with the creation of the Ferencz International Justice Initiative at the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide. This generous gift gave further hope to those in attendance at the 25th anniversary dinner.
“The fact that my almost 14-year-old daughter attended the museum’s event as a volunteer and had the unique o ppor t u n i t y t o h e a r Mr. Ferencz speak was very special for me,” said Slatoff, also the volunteer chair of the business and professional outreach committee for the museum. “Educating our children about the lessons of the Holocaust in order to prevent future genocides is of paramount importance.”
Ferencz has been awarded a trove of medals, including the French Legion of Honor, Germany’s military medal of honor and Holland’s Erasmus Prize. He turns 98 in March but has no intention of slowing down.
“What is missing is enforcement of international humanitarian law,” Ferencz said. “Until we’ve created an effec- tive enforcement mechanism, people in the world will continue to suffer human rights abuses everywhere.”
Slatoff said Ferencz’s speech will stay with him for a long time.
“One of the most profound messages that I took away from Mr. Ferencz was that this man still has this incredible will to safeguard the future of society, and that he implored all of us in the audience to recognize that the future lies with us – it’s up to us as part of humanity to prevent future genocides.”
The City of The Hague (Netherlands) honors Benjamin Ferencz in 2017 with a public walkway next to The Peace Palace.
Benjamin Ferencz (second from right) as chief prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen case at Nuremberg, flanked by German defense counsel.
Benjamin Ferencz receives the Medal of Freedom from Harvard Law School in 2014. A previous recipient was Nelson Mandela.