Last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor continues to seek justice at age 99

The documentary ‘Prosecuting Evil’ looks at Ben Ferencz, a war crimes investigator and a prosecutor at the post-WWII Nuremberg trials.

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Ben Ferencz has gotten a close look at crimes against humanity over the last century. In fact, he helped to define what the phrase means by serving as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials of Nazis following World War II. 

And despite his familiarity with the mass murder committed against Jews by Germans — and his understanding that lessons have not really been learned since then — Ferencz, 99, still says things like, “I’m mindful of the fact that the world has always been torn apart by the type of horror which is featured on TV. But I’m also always mindful of the fact that we are, believe it or not, making very significant progress towards creating a more humane and peaceful world.”

What do we have as evidence for that assertion?

The attorney himself, who is the subject of a new documentary, “Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz.”

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In summary, if Ferencz still is capable of optimism despite his experiences, for example, hearing Nazis justify the killing of mothers and babies, then perhaps the rest of us can stay positive, too. 

The basis for his world view appears to be that war can lead otherwise normal people to commit horrific acts and that the only way to prevent such crimes from being committed is through strong, just international law. 

The film, directed by Barry Avrich, details how Ferencz, who is Jewish, and his family fled from Transylvania when he was a baby because they feared that they would be persecuted. They landed in New York. 

When World War II started, Ferencz was “desperate” to join the U.S. Army and fight the Germans but the military wouldn’t take him because “as an airport pilot I couldn’t reach the pedals…as a paratrooper they said I’d go up instead of down,” he said.

Still, he was ultimately able to join and assigned to shoot down planes. 

“I am of the firm opinion still today that we shot down more American and British planes than German planes,” he said. They then had to sort through wreckage, find fingers and send them to the surgeon general to notify the next of kin.

“That’s war,” he said.

With a degree from Harvard Law School, the army assigned Ferencz to be a war crimes investigator at the liberated Nazi concentration camps, where he found piles of bodies and starving people searching through trash bags for food. 

After his discharge from the Army, the United States recruited Ferencz, then only 27 years old, to serve at Nuremberg. He ended up as chief prosecutor at the trial of the Einsatzgruppen, men accused of operating in death squads behind the front lines of the German Army in the Soviet Union and killing more than 1.3 million Jews. All 22 men on trial were convicted; 13 were sentenced to death. The film is most powerful when Ferencz shares his firsthand account of the trials. 

On his response to hearing the court sentence the men to be hanged, “It was a very serious, very intense emotional reaction knowing that you’re responsible for killing this man.”

The film explains how the trials paved the way for the International Criminal Court — and Ferencz’s role in establishing it. 

“Ben is the personification of the international do-gooder, someone who has no goal in life other than to bring justice to an unjust world,” attorney Alan Dershowitz, the legal scholar, said in the film. 

As the U.S. government — under President Bill Clinton — was deciding whether to sign an agreement to establish the court, Ferencz and Robert S. McNamara, the defense secretary during the Vietnam War, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times urging the government to ratify the treaty. 

“My response to him, in practically these words was Mr. Secretary, you realize if we had such a court, you might be one of the first defendants,” Ferencz said.

Still, they wrote the op-ed, and Clinton signed. Then under President George W. Bush, the government informed the U.N. Secretary-General that it did not intend to ratify the treaty and was not obligated by it. Since then, United States “relations with the court have been complicated but often positive,” according to Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit dedicated to exposing abuses around the world.

Ferencz, who still spends most of his day working, thinks the rest of the world still has work to do to stop war.

“Well, how are you going to stop war making? It’s been glorified for centuries,” Ferencz asks. ”Yes, it has been glorified, and it’s time to stop before you kill everybody. We are on the path too so you have to make up your mind. Either you are going to try to behave in a humane and rational way or you’re going to kill everybody. Goodbye, kids. I’m 95, 98 years old. Not my world. That’s my message.”

‘Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz’

Part of the St. Louis Jewish Film Festival

WHEN:  7 p.m. Monday, June 3

WHERE:  Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema

MORE INFO: Running time: 1:23. For tickets or more information, visit or call 314-442-3179. The film will be introduced by Anti-Defamation League Heartland Regional Director Karen Aroesty (live via Skype).