Last Words of the Last Nuremberg Prosecutor

On Good Friday, the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials died at an assisted living home in Boynton Beach, Florida.  Benjamin Ferencz was 103 years old.  Three years earlier, his wife, Gertrude, had passed away.  They were married in 1946 (do the edifying math) and had four children.  Benjamin would say that they never had a quarrel.

He was born in Transylvania in a Jewish family, which emigrated to the United States to escape persecution when he was a boy.  Growing up in Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, he attended CCNY and Harvard Law School, and then enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he served in Patton’s headquarters collecting evidence of war crimes.

Researching the Nazi archives in Berlin, his team discovered extensive documentation of the activities of the notorious Einsatzgruppen, SS killer squads that followed the German army into Poland and Ukraine, to murder Jews especially.  Assigned as chief prosecutor of twenty-two defendants, including six SS generals, responsible together for over 1 million murders, Ferencz attained guilty verdicts against them all.  It was “the biggest murder trial in history,” according to newspapers then.

I feel like I knew Ferencz personally, because I have frequently pondered the interrogation of Otto Ohlendor (here), Commander of Einsatzgruppe D, and used it in teaching natural law.  The details are unsettling about how it was contrived to keep the victims in the dark as long as possible; how men had to be separated from women and children, whom they would struggle vehemently to protect; and most of all how the Nazis would just walk down a line of men, or women and children, standing alongside a trench, and shoot them one-by-one at point blank range.

Ferencz as chief prosecutor at the Einsatzgruppen trial, 1947

As Primo Levi explains in his preface to Rudolf Hoess’s autobiography, Commandant of Auschwitz, the SS men who committed these horrific crimes would sometimes kill themselves afterwards out of self-loathing, or become drunkards. The gas chambers and crematoria were devised to make the murders less personal and therefore more “efficient.”

Ferencz’s biographer writes that he encountered anti-Semitism in the Army, but also that “he was constantly at odds with the strict requirement to respond to orders he considered ‘unconstitutional’ or at least not in keeping with the proviso of the Declaration of Independence,” that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  For Ferencz, apparently, we are bound in conscience to disobey orders that direct us to destroy the innocent.

I also have a new connection with Ferencz, because his last public appearance was a brief address to participants at a conference at my university, “The Nuremberg Principles: The Contemporary Challenges,” just a couple of weeks ago.

His words seem important.  He begins by saying that any meeting today that aims to advance the Nuremberg principles should be supported.  And yet he does not take for granted that everyone he addresses does support those principles.  He seems to say that each of us is called to make a deliberate act of will to do so:

“We are looking for human rights,” he says,

And no one is to be treated as sub-human, or unworthy of being saved.  We are trying to advance the principle that all human beings are entitled to be treated as human beings. If we can contribute to that, we should.  If we cannot contribute to that, if we believe we ought to be superior people, and that we can treat other people as inferior, then you got your own customer.  I hope you will finally decide to show that you are believers in equal rights for all people, regardless of their race or religion or anything else.  And that’s what I have stood for.  That’s what Nuremberg stood for.  And that’s what I hope you will stand for.

(A point of information: Is “You got your own customer” an idiom from Ferencz’s childhood Yiddish, or a phrase from Old World New York?  It seems to mean “you have yourself as an audience.”)

Ferencz in a CNN interview, 2022

It’s obvious that legal abortion is wrong on Nuremberg principles.  A child before birth is a human being just as much as a child after birth.  If the woman “wants to keep her child,” she treats her unborn baby as a human being and looks for a physician who will do the same.  Others around her do the same, never saying “fetus” but always “your baby.” For her to do so is reasonable, not fantasy.  Households, cultures, entire jurisdictions can and do treat the unborn as human beings.

The ideology of abortion, on the other hand, is an ideology of autonomy, of self-power, of the strong, which would even justify expelling one’s offspring as an intruder – as Judith Jarvis Thomson did us the favor of bringing out so clearly in her essay “A Defense of Abortion.”  It is an ideology in which the born, not all of them, but only those who claim “autonomy,” say “we ought to be superior people; we can treat other human beings as inferior.”

Therefore, anyone who wishes to advance the Nuremberg principles today, to do so consistently, and in opposition to their most widespread violation, must by a deliberate act of will reject legal abortion.  So much Ferencz is telling us today, if we consider his principles. And many have indeed done so.

I do not know, however, what Ferencz held personally about abortion. It does not matter.  Many of us are not consistent.  Besides, as a Jewish person, he was a direct object of attack by Nazism.  As a soldier in the Third Army, he saw first-hand the senseless destruction of an aggressive, groundless war.  What wonder if his focus was elsewhere, such as the International Criminal Court, which he helped realize?

I do not say we should canonize him, and certainly not judge him.  I say, simply, listen to him.


You may also enjoy:

Elizabeth A. Mitchell’s Real Men Are Irreplaceable

Michele McAloon’s The Bells of Germany

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.