Benjamin Ferencz

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Benjamin Berell Ferencz (born 1920) is a Jewish lawyer, who was born in Hungary, but who later moved to the United States. He is most well-known for being the Chief Prosecutor at the Einsatzgruppen trial, one of the Nuremberg trials.

Nuremberg trials

After his studies, he joined the U.S. Army, where he served in the 115th AAA Gun Battalion, an anti-aircraft artillery unit. In 1945, he was transferred to the headquarters of General Patton's Third Army, where he was assigned to a team tasked with setting up a war crimes branch and collecting evidence for such crimes. In this function, he was then sent to the Holocaust camps for investigations.

On Christmas 1945, Ferencz was honorably discharged from the Army, with the rank of Sergeant. He returned to New York, but was recruited only a few weeks later, to participate as a prosecutor in the Nuremberg Trials, in the legal team of Telford Taylor. Ferencz was appointed Chief Prosecutor at the Einsatzgruppen trial. This despite Ferencz being only 27 years old and the case being his first legal case.

The presiding judge Michael Muusmanno directly supported and helped the inexperienced prosecution during the trial, aiding the prosecution in the cross-examination of each defendant, and making accusations and persecution arguments not made by the formal persecution.[1]

Several of his family members are stated to have died in the concentration camps.[2] Apparently, this was not seen as a conflict of interest.

Ferencz has made several controversial statements on the Holocaust, the treatment of prisoners, and obtaining evidence. See the "Quotes" section.

Later activities

The Einsatzgruppen trial may have been the only trial in which Ferencz directly participated, as he afterwards became involved in the lucrative reparations programs involving Germany and Germans.

Ferencz thus participated in the setup of reparation and rehabilitation programs for victims of persecutions by the National Socialists, and also had a part in the negotiations that led to the Reparations Agreement between Israel and West Germany signed in 1952 and the first German Restitution Law in 1953. See also the article on the Holocaust industry.

As director of the United Restitution Organization, he also worked to recover stolen Jewish properties, businesses, art and religious objects and return them to rightful owners.[2] See also the article on degenerate art on allegedly stolen art.

Later activities included working for the creation of an International Criminal Court, that would serve as a worldwide highest instance for issues of crimes against humanity and war crimes.

In 2016, he gave one million dollar to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.[2]


DPs, or displaced persons, were the survivors of death and POW camps [...] While it was perfectly legal under military law to hand over suspects for further questioning to DPs, says Benjamin Ferencz, who was a lead U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunals in 1945 and 1947, knowingly delivering suspects for execution was not. And of course the DPs were not interested in extracting information.

Ferencz, who today is 85 and lives in New York, cautions against making sweeping armchair moral judgments. "Someone who was not there could never really grasp how unreal the situation was," he says. "I once saw DPs beat an SS man and then strap him to the steel gurney of a crematorium. They slid him in the oven, turned on the heat and took him back out. Beat him again, and put him back in until he was burnt alive. I did nothing to stop it. I suppose I could have brandished my weapon or shot in the air, but I was not inclined to do so. Does that make me an accomplice to murder?"

Ferencz -- who went on to a distinguished legal career, became a founder of the International Criminal Court and is today probably the leading authority on military jurisprudence of the era -- cannot specifically address Weiss's actions. But he says it's important to recall that military legal norms at the time permitted a host of flexibilities that wouldn't fly today. "You know how I got witness statements?" he says. "I'd go into a village where, say, an American pilot had parachuted and been beaten to death and line everyone one up against the wall. Then I'd say, 'Anyone who lies will be shot on the spot.' It never occurred to me that statements taken under duress would be invalid."

—Matthew Brzezinski, Giving Hitler Hell.[3]
Ferencz relates a story concerning his interrogation of an SS colonel in which he took out his pistol in order to intimidate him: "What do you do when he thinks he’s still in charge? I’ve got to show him that I’m in charge. All I’ve got to do is squeeze the trigger and mark it as auf der Flucht erschossen [shot while trying to escape]…I said “you are in a filthy uniform sir, take it off!” I stripped him naked and threw his clothes out the window. He stood there naked for half an hour, covering his balls with his hands, not looking nearly like the SS officer he was reported to be. Then I said “now listen, you and I are gonna have an understanding right now. I am a Jew—I would love to kill you and mark you down as auf der Flucht erschossen, but I’m gonna do what you would never do. You are gonna sit down and write out exactly what happened—when you entered the camp, who was there, how many died, why they died, everything else about it. Or, you don’t have to do that—you are under no obligation—you can write a note of five lines to your wife, and I will try to deliver it…” [Ferencz gets the desired statement and continues:] I then went to someone outside and said “Major, I got this affidavit, but I’m not gonna use it—it is a coerced confession. I want you to go in, be nice to him, and have him re-write it.” The second one seemed to be okay—I told him to keep the second one and destroy the first one. That was it."
—John Wear, ‘The Malmedy Massacre: The War Crimes Trial Controversy’ by Steven P. Remy, Reviewed by John Wear.[4]
What was left of the Auschwitz camp was preserved as a museum. The Museum’s Director, K. Smolen, was a non-Jewish survivor of the camp with a typical Polish unpronounceable and unforgettable first name that I can’t remember. [...] Those who appeared unfit for hard labor—the old, the children and infirm—were hounded directly into the waiting gas chambers. Behind the adjacent crematorium was a large grassy knoll composed of the ashes from the burned bodies, which first had the fat drained off for use as soap marked with the letter “J” for “Jew.”
—Benjamin Ferencz.[5]
We are now working on a case,—and this is the absolute truth,—in which hundreds of men with tattooed skin were slaughtered and skinned so that the wife of the death camp could have lampshades made of the colored human tissues. A story? No. We have the proof. We have the skins, the lampshades, the dead bodies of the unfortunate victims,—and also the names of the perpetrators.
—Benjamin Ferencz.[6]

See also

Other Nuremberg prosecutors


  1. Evading the Hangman’s Noose: Clemency in a Nazi War Crimes Trial By: Allison Ernest, as cited in
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 After seven decades fighting genocide, this 96-year-old prosecutor is still hard at work
  3. Matthew Brzezinski. Sunday, July 24, 2005. Giving Hitler Hell. Washington Post.
  4. John Wear, ‘The Malmedy Massacre: The War Crimes Trial Controversy’ by Steven P. Remy, Reviewed by John Wear.
  5. "Story 40: Reclaiming Cemeteries"
  6. Hofmann, Tom. Benjamin Ferencz, Nuremberg Prosecutor and Peace Advocate (Kindle Locations 1078-1081). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
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