Victoria Petroff
International journalist and producer

The death of Benjamin Ferencz: memories of the last interview

Benjamin Ferencz, the last living Nuremberg prosecutor of Nazis, has died at 103 (Facebook/BenFerencz)
Benjamin Ferencz, the last living Nuremberg prosecutor of Nazis, has died at 103 (Facebook/BenFerencz)

The renowned prosecutor Ben Ferencz, who played a crucial role in the Nuremberg trials, has passed away at the age of 103, according to his family. As the last surviving prosecutor from the landmark trials, Ferencz was part of the legal team that tried a group of major Nazi war criminals in 12 separate trials. The International Military Tribunal, which consisted of eight judges from four anti-Hitler coalition countries and four chief prosecutors, heard the cases.

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Born in 1920 in Transylvania, which is in northwestern Romania, Ferencz came from a Jewish family that emigrated to the United States when he was an infant. He rose to prominence as the prosecutor for the ninth trial of the Nuremberg trials, which took place from September 29, 1947, to April 10, 1948. During the Einsatzgruppen trial, Ferencz successfully secured convictions for 22 commanders of Nazi death battalions. His efforts were instrumental in bringing the perpetrators of these heinous crimes to justice.

In my personal communication with Ferencz just a year prior to his passing, I was struck by the depth of his knowledge and the unwavering commitment he had to fighting for justice. His passing marks the end of an era and serves as a reminder of the importance of holding those who commit atrocities accountable for their actions. Ferencz’s legacy will undoubtedly live on as a beacon of hope for future generations.

In Florida, there lived a short, elderly man named Ben, who was not well-known among his neighbours. Despite this, few knew about his contributions to humanity. Even in his 100s, Ben always kept a lighthearted attitude and never complained about his health. Although he volunteered for the Army in 1941 during his time as a law student at Harvard, it wasn’t until three years later that he saw his first combat action.

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Ben’s military career took him to the beaches of Normandy, the Siegfried Line, and the Rhine. However, his most challenging task came when he was 25 and tasked with collecting evidence of Nazi crimes in concentration camps. Ben’s first experience was at Buchenwald. He vividly remembered the horrors he witnessed there. 

The war was still ongoing, and SS men were attempting to escape from the camps, with prisoners in pursuit. The crematoria were still operational, and bodies lay piled up like firewood. The hungry people scavenged for food among the garbage, like rats”, – it was a shocking experience that stayed with Ben for the rest of his life.

Thanks to Ben’s efforts, many Nazi commanders of the Einsatzgruppen, responsible for exterminating Jews, Roma, and Communists, were brought to justice. Although he had no video evidence, he found proof of mass executions in everyday SS reports from occupied regions of the Soviet Union, such as “Folder 111,” which contained information about the elimination of 55,000 Jews in the past ten weeks. Similarly, “Folder 119” detailed the execution of around 34,000 Jews in Kiev’s Babi Yar, while “Folder 84” reported the extermination of 91,678 individuals by Einsatzgruppe D in March 1942.

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When Ben discovered that the number of executed people exceeded one million, he decided to take action. He convinced American commanders of the necessity of a separate tribunal, which became known as the “Little Nuremberg Tribunal” at No. 9. Ben’s dedication to justice for the victims of the Holocaust was inspiring and impactful, and his contributions will never be forgotten. 

Ferencz was taken aback by the sheer scale and nonchalant attitude towards the crimes described by the accused, as if they were merely keeping track of a business transaction. He was determined to hold them accountable for their actions.

The Einsatzgruppe D was in charge of operations in southern Ukraine and Moldova, led by former lawyer and SS Gruppenführer Otto Ohlendorf, who stood out to Ben during the trial.

At the trial, Ohlendorf attempted to portray himself as a humane individual, stating that he disapproved of his soldiers smashing babies’ heads against walls or trees. Instead, he advised them to shoot the baby if the mother was holding it to save ammunition. Ferencz remembered his accusatory speech word for word, seventy-five years later.

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Ferencz, the youngest prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, had to make a footstool out of books to be seen behind the rostrum. Ohlendorf and three other SS men were sentenced to death by hanging, while the others received imprisonment. However, none of the 24 defendants ever pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity, believing that they were serving their country and Hitler.

Ferencz described the accused as patriotic, educated Germans who considered themselves heroes and believed that killing children and Gypsies was necessary. Talking to him was a remarkable experience that cannot be forgotten. He made an immense contribution to the history of mankind with his work. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his family, loved ones, and friends.

About the Author
Victoria Petroff (Petrova) was born in Moscow, Russia on 27 May 1988 in the diplomatic family. At the age of two, Victoria's family relocated to Czechoslovakia, where she spent her early childhood. She graduated from the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv with a Master of Arts in International Journalism. After receiving her education, she studied business-course in London (London City University) and had an internship in the U.S. Embassy. Victoria has over 15 years of experience in the field of media. She worked in different federal (NTV Channel, Channel One Russia, Channel Russia 2) and international media. Her common documentary projects with NBC Sport (USA) were nominated for Emmy Awards. Victoria’s field of work - social and historical topics. In 2015 she joined a film industry. She working in Moscow and in London (UK). The main idea of her projects - to create cultural and social connections between different countries. She wants to tell about historical lessons, which will help to not make mistakes from the past.
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