Benjamin Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials in Germany that brought Nazi war criminals to justice after the second world war and a longtime apostle of international criminal law, died on Friday at age 103, US media reported, citing his son.
Ferencz, a Harvard-educated lawyer, secured convictions of numerous German officers who led roving death squads during the war. Circumstances of his death were not immediately disclosed. The New York Times reported that Ferencz died at an assisted living facility in Boynton Beach, Florida.
He was just 27 years old when he served as a prosecutor in 1947 at Nuremberg, where Nazi defendants including Hermann Göring faced a series of trials for crimes against humanity including the genocide known as the Holocaust in which six million Jewish people and millions of others were systematically killed.
Ferencz then advocated for decades for the creation of an international criminal court, a goal realised with the establishment of an international tribunal that sits in The Hague, the Netherlands. Ferencz also was a significant donor to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum established in Washington.
“Today the world lost a leader in the quest for justice for victims of genocide and related crimes,” the US Holocaust Museum said in a post on Twitter.
Born on 11 March 1920 in Transylvania, Romania, Ferencz was 10 months old when his family moved to the United States, where he grew up poor in New York City’s “Hell’s Kitchen.” After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1943, he joined the U.S. military and fought in Europe before joining the US army’s newly formed war crimes section.
He seized documents and record evidence at Nazi death camps such as Buchenwald after their liberation by allied forces, surveying scenes of human misery including piles of emaciated corpses and the crematoriums where untold numbers of bodies were incinerated.
After the war ended in 1945, Ferencz was recruited to join in the US prosecution at the war crimes trials in Nuremberg, a city where the Nazi leadership had held elaborate propaganda rallies before the war, serving under US General Telford Taylor. The trials were controversial at the time but ended up being hailed as a milestone on the path toward establishing international law and holding war criminals accountable in even-handed trials.
“What was most significant about it was it gave us and it gave me an insight into the mentality of mass murderers,” Ferencz said in a 2018 interview with the American Bar Association.
“They had murdered over a million people, including hundreds of thousands of children in cold blood, and I wanted to understand how it is that educated people – many of them had PhDs or they were generals in the German Army – could not only tolerate but lead and commit such horrible crimes.”
After the Nuremberg trials, Ferencz worked to secure compensation for Holocaust victims and survivors.
Ferencz later advocated for the creation of an international criminal court. In 1998, 120 countries adopted a statute in Rome to establish the international criminal court, which came into force in 2002.
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