Ben Ferencz is best known as the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials, where, at 27, he helped convict 22 high-ranking Nazis of war crimes during the Holocaust. In the seven decades since, he fought for restitution for Holocaust survivors and has continued to champion an international criminal-justice system, playing a key role in the creation of the International Criminal Court and arguing that it could be an alternative to war.
But at 98, Ferencz told a packed auditorium last week at Temple Emanu-El’s Streicker Center, he has “never thought in terms” of a legacy. When he and his wife recently discussed what sort of tribute he’d like to have on his gravestone, he added, he told her he’d favor the words “I tried,” preferring to be remembered as “someone who tried.”
The comments are typical of Ferencz, who, despite his sharp wit and huge achievements, is modest and unpretentious, to the point of being self-effacing. But he might find disagreement from among the hundreds of people at the Oct. 4 event, which was sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and featured the screening of a new documentary, “Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary Life of Ben Ferencz.” The evening also included a panel discussion with Ferencz, who lives in Delray Beach, Fla.; Anna Cave, director of the Ferencz International Justice Initiative at the museum’s Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide; and Barry Avrich, the film’s director and producer.
It’s Ferencz who funded the International Justice Initiative with a donation two years ago of $1 million — a annual gift that’s renewable for up to $10 million. The museum also gave him its highest honor in 2015, the Elie Wiesel Award, for his work holding Nazi perpetrators accountable and advocating for the victims of genocide, including Holocaust survivors.
Avrich said the idea for the documentary came suddenly last year as he was watching a profile of Ferencz on “60 Minutes.” He recalled that his wife and daughter had called him over to the TV set, saying, “You have to see this guy,” and he was instantly “riveted.” He contacted Ferencz the very next day and, “within a month of Ferencz agreeing to the film, he and crew were shooting in Delray Beach. All of the shooting took place during the course of “one, long day,” he said.
Both in the film and during the panel discussion, Ferencz — who still gets choked up as he recalls what he witnessed in Europe during and after World War II — spoke of his belief that war itself is an evil, capable of turning otherwise good, decent people into criminals. He also expressed his trademark optimism that it’s “possible to shift from the present system” — one in which leaders wage war to settle disagreements — “to something more humane and rational.”
Ferencz also touched on today’s political scene, recalling President Trump’s past threats to various countries, including North Korea, and saying it was “insane” to talk of destroying an entire nation.
Cave, meanwhile, discussed the work of the Ferencz International Justice Initiative, which has created “justice advisory groups” to work in regions in which atrocities are taking place. Each group includes various members of civil society — lawyers, human rights activists, religious leaders and victims themselves — with the aim of making sure that the voices of victims are heard.