Tuesday, April 28, 2015

"Never Give Up!" Ben Ferencz and His Lifelong Defense of Human Rights

Prosecutor Ben Ferencz at The Einsatzgruppen Trial (circa 1947-8)
Photo: Creative Commons

Most Americans believe they live in a world that is on the brink of catastrophe. The media is saturated with images that seem to portend a future when war, terrorism and mass murder will destroy the relative comfort and peace that most of us take for granted. But what if there are people in our world who have witnessed the worst in human nature but have chosen to see a future when humanity will eventually triumph over those who deny basic human rights to millions in order to achieve power for selfish, destructive reasons?

I met such a person last night. His name is Ben Ferencz, a former Nuremburg Trials prosecutor who spoke at an event sponsored by Salem State University's Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Former Nuremberg prosecutor Ben Ferencz (center) at "Nuremberg and Now: Genocide and the International Courts," sponsored by the Salem State University Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. On Mr. Ferencz's right is Dr. Chris Mauriello, Co-Coordinator of the Center and Professor of History.  Bakhtiyar Tuzmukhamedov, Appeals Judge, UN International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and for the former Yugoslavia is on Mr. Ferencz's left. Salem, MA. April 27, 2015. Photo courtesy of Larry Davis.

I must admit that although I have taught history to college students for over twenty years, I knew precious little about Mr. Ferencz's accomplishments. A brief sketch: in 1943 he enlisted in the Army after graduating from Harvard Law School and under the command of General George S. Patton saw combat in some of the fiercest fighting of World War II. Upon being honorably discharged in 1945, he was recruited by General Telford Taylor to prosecute what became known as The Einsatzgruppen Case. His website points out the enormity of the crimes he and his associates uncovered at the war's end:

"Ferencz was sent with about fifty researchers to Berlin to scour Nazi offices and archives. In their hands lay overwhelming evidence of Nazi genocide by German doctors, lawyers, judges, generals industrialists, and others who played leading roles in organizing or perpetrating Nazi brutalities. Without pity or remorse, the SS murder squads [Einsatzgruppen] killed every Jewish man, woman, and child they could lay their hands on...It was tabulated that over a million persons were deliberately murdered by these special 'action groups.'" 

Mr. Ferencz's opening statement at the Einsatzgruppen Trial can be accessed here.

Otto Ohlendorf, SS Brigadefuhrer. Ohlendorf was the chief defendant at The Einsatzgruppen Trial. He showed no remorse for his actions and told Mr. Ferencz that American Jews would endure suffering because of prosecutor's work.
Photo: Creative Commons

I entered the lecture hall expecting to see a man who is ten feet tall. After all, Mr. Ferencz was only twenty-seven years old when he was named prosecutor in what eventually became known as the Einsatzgruppen Trial (it was also his first case). Instead, I saw a diminutive man mingling with the crowd, a man of exceptional good humor who struck those of us who met him as a humble advocate for the importance of educating future generations in the need to respect human rights.

At ninety-five years of age, Mr. Ferencz took the microphone not as a weary chronicler of past atrocities but instead offered a clarion call to those in the audience to look to "law" not "war" as the answer to the violence and indifference to human rights that plague the world today. He didn't shield his audience from the difficult reality he experienced seventy years ago as a GI and prosecutor. He searched newly liberated concentration camps for evidence to use in court against the perpetrators of horrific crimes while seeing the dead, and nearly dead, bodies of those who suffered the cruelest of fates. As a prosecutor, he looked directly into the eyes of the killers and confessed to his audience that as a former soldier he fantasized about killing them himself. After The Einsatzgruppen Trial (twenty-two defendants were charged, with thirteen sentenced to death), he dedicated his life to building the framework for the international courts that today work to bring to justice the perpetrators of war crimes in places like Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. 

I must admit that I am a jaded college professor. War? Genocide? Mass killing? All in a day's lecture. But I must also face that fact that I haven't seen anything remotely related to the crimes that have killed millions since the Armenian genocide. I've traveled, to be sure, but have not been a witness to history in the way that Mr. Ferencz has; his words forced me to confront my cynicism about the future of human rights on this planet. He stated plainly that during the trials he was a defender of "civilization" against genocide and crimes against humanity (and stands by this today). This is not a quaint philosophical point to bandy about at a cocktail party. His defense of law, reason, compromise, and human rights have deep roots in the Enlightenment. Why not defend this tradition? After all, what is left if we abandon these ideals? His final comments left me with a lot to think about: "You cannot kill an ideology with a gun," "Mass murderers did not have horns--many Nazi perpetrators possessed doctoral degrees and thought they were doing the right thing by their country." His solution is just the beginning. The killers are people, too. Get to them while they're young. Teach them the value of compromise, the love of peace and a hatred of war.

Mr. Ferencz fired up his audience with three final pieces of advice when battling on behalf of human rights: 
1.) Never Give Up! 
2.) Never Give Up! 
3.) Never Give Up!