Ferencz said it took a lot of effort to keep his emotions in check.
“I knew what I was seeing was horror,” he said.
He told himself, “Just get on with the job, Benny. Just get your evidence. And get your ass out of there.
Ferencz and his men collected thousands of documents in the fields and facilities in Berlin. They included detailed reports on the Einsatzgruppen, special SS units that swept through Nazi-occupied Europe and killed more than 1 million people.
The Nazis’ meticulous bookkeeping would soon seal the fate of some of Hitler’s most infamous henchmen.
‘A hot potato’
The first and best-known Nuremberg trial began in November 1945. It ended with the conviction of Herman Goring and 21 other top Nazi lieutenants.
The United States decided to hold 12 more trials in Nuremberg against Nazi judges, doctors, and other personalities.
By the time Ferencz found the Einsatzgruppen records, the US had already finalized plans for the other trials.
“I knew I had a hot potato,” he said.
He flew to Nuremberg and told Telford Taylor, the prosecutions’ lead attorney, that another trial had to be added. But Telford said it was not possible. The budget had already been set and the Pentagon was not interested in any more lawsuits.
“I was a little outraged,” Ferencz recalled. “I said: ‘I have in my hand here the mass murder of a million people. Don’t tell me we can’t take them to court.
“He said, ‘Well, can you do it in addition to your other work?’
I said, ‘Sure’. That was how I got my first case.”
The trial began on September 29, 1947. The defendants were towering figures: middle-aged men who had overseen the mass killing of innocent civilians. Ferencz was six months shy of his 28th birthday and he was barely 5 feet tall.
He was so short that he had to stand on books to get to the lectern in the courtroom. But he spoke with the power and eloquence of a seasoned litigator.
“The defendants were the cruel executioners whose terror wrote the blackest page in the history of mankind,” he said in his opening speech. “Death was his tool and life his toy. If these men are immune, then the law has lost its meaning and man must live in fear.”
Ferencz called only one witness: a man who verified the authenticity of records documenting the “cleansing” of Jews from cities across Europe.
All 22 defendants were found guilty and 14 sentenced to death. But only four were executed, including Otto Ohlendorf, a well-known SS commander.
After sentencing, Ferencz decided to meet with Ohlendorf in a courtroom holding cell. Not to extract a confession or probe his mind. Ferencz wanted to extend a favor.
Would Ohlendorf like me to deliver a message to his family?
“I had in mind that he had a wife and five children,” Ferencz said. “Would you like me to say that you’re sorry for bringing misfortune to the family or something?”
But Ohlendorf wasn’t interested. He went on a tirade defending the Nazis, saying they were right to resist the “communists” who were looking to take over Germany and the rest of the world.
Ferencz interrupted him mid-sentence, ending the conversation with three words spoken in German: “Goodbye, Mr. Ohlendorf.”
“There was no remorse,” Ferencz said. “Without regrets.”
In the years after the trial, he did not recede into private life.
Ferencz was recruited to lead an effort to return Nazi-seized property to its owners or their heirs, a one-of-a-kind effort that led to him staying in Germany for 10 years. During that period, he was also called in to help negotiate a reparations deal with the West German government.
It was a tense and dangerous undertaking. Militant Jewish groups and others angered by dealings with the Germans resorted to death threats and letter bombs to deter people involved in the negotiations.
“Something people don’t realize is how incredibly dangerous it was for these people,” said Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, an organization created to negotiate the settlements. and then manage the dispersal of the money.
“But Ben always talked about it like he had no choice, given what the survivors endured, it would be unimaginable for him to give up despite the dangers he might face.”
The German government finally agreed to compensate Holocaust victims around the world.
West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was the first to sign the agreement in Luxembourg in 1952, but his pen had run out of ink, so he borrowed one from Ferencz, a pen that his wife, Gertrude, with whom he had started dating as a teenager, he had given her away. him when he graduated from law school.
Since the deal was finalized, approximately $90 billion has been distributed to Holocaust survivors, according to the Claims Conference.
“He is a treasure of humanity,” Schneider said of Ferencz.