- Benjamin Berel Ferencz (b. 1920), lawyer, expert on international criminal law and former Chief Prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. Born to a Jewish family in a small Transylvanian village, Ferencz immigrated to the US with his parents and sister when he was 10 months old. The family settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Ferencz' father found work as a janitor in an apartment house further uptown. When Ferencz was six his parents divorced, and he and his sister moved in with an aunt in Brooklyn. After finishing public school, Ferencz attended the City College of New York and then Harvard Law School. There he was kept well informed about the atrocities taking place in Europe by his mentor, Sheldon Glueck, who served on the United Nations War Crime Commission (no relation to the subsequent UN). While working as a research assistant for Glueck, who was writing a book on war crimes, Ferencz developed considerable expertise in the field. After receiving his law degree, Ferencz enlisted in the US Army. Assigned to the 115th Triple A Gun Battalion, Ferencz participated in every campaign from Normandy (he arrived a week after the initial invasion) to the Battle of the Bulge. Ferencz was quite disenchanted with the army and suffered from antisemitism within its ranks. While stationed in Luxembourg in 1945, Ferencz was transferred to the Judge Advocate section at Third Army headquarters. His unit was assigned the task of setting up a war crimes branch. Initially, Ferencz was the only man in his unit who knew anything about war crimes, but soon he was joined by a Yale Law School graduate named Jack Nowitz. Their work began with the investigation of the murder of American hostages in France and Belgium. Later, as the concentration camps were uncovered one by one, Ferencz and Nowitz focused their efforts on visiting the camps, securing camp records, interviewing survivors, writing reports and issuing arrest warrants for as many perpetrators as they could identify by name. As they compiled lists of suspected German war criminals, the names were registered in the Central Registry of War Criminals and Security Suspects (CROWCASS) and distributed to facilitate their identification and capture. Ferencz and Nowitz also pursued the trails of death marches out of the camps that took place in the last weeks of the war. This led them to dozens of hidden mass graves. Often when Ferencz came upon such a grave site, he would round up local German civilians to exhume the bodies and prepare them for proper burial. When the decision was taken to establish a military tribunal at Dachau to try concentration camp personnel, Ferencz played a key role. It was his responsibility to draw up the indictments for the SS defendants based on evidence provided by camp records, survivor testimony and Signal Corps photographs. Towards the end of 1945 Ferencz was released from the army and sent home. However, only a few weeks passed before he was summoned to Washington for possible recruitment to the US war crimes trial team in Germany. Telford Taylor, who had just been selected to succeed Justice Robert Jackson as Chief of Counsel for the Nuremberg Trials, wanted Ferencz' assistance in planning a series of subsequent Nuremberg trials. Ferencz agreed and was soon back in Berlin. His wife, Gertrude, joined him later. In Berlin Ferencz set up the Office of Chief of Counsel for War Crimes and recruited a staff of 50. They had only four months to wade through millions of Nazi party records to collect evidence before the start of the first subsequent Nuremberg trial, the Medical Case, in October 1946. During the course of their research Ferencz and his staff discovered a cache of Einsatzgruppen records in the basement of the burnt out Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. The records provided a day-by-day log of mass shootings and a list of all the officers involved. Upon finding the Einsatzgruppen reports Ferencz flew to Nuremberg and presented the evidence to Telford Taylor, who immediately authorized a separate Einsatzgruppen trial. Because he had no other prosecutors available to plan the new trial, Taylor asked the then 27-year-old Ferencz to assume the role of Chief Prosecutor for the Einsatzgruppen trial. Ferencz successfully shepherded the case to trial in the summer of 1947. Following the completion of the trial in April 1948, Ferencz was occupied with organizing the trial records and evidence files so that they could be turned over to German authorities for future war crimes trials. He also was engaged as an editor for the planned publication of the records of the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, which later came out as the Green Series. While Ferencz was preparing to return to the US, he was asked by Joseph Schwartz, European director of the Joint Distribution Committee, to take charge of the Jewish Restitution Successor Organization (JRSO), a newly created body to recover heirless Jewish property. In August 1948 Ferencz hired a large staff of German investigators to comb every real estate registry in Germany and record the names of any Jews whose properties had been transferred since 1933. For three months, 24 hours a day, his staff typed up claims as fast as the investigators could deliver the information. When the deadline came due for the filing of claims approximately 173,000 had been submitted for pieces of property in the American zone of occupation. In order to assuage the feelings of Germans who were being dispossessed and prevent further antisemitic resentment, Ferencz turned over responsibility for the settlement of property disputes to the German Laender (provinces) in exchange for a lump sum payment to the JRSO. This money, amounting to millions of Deutschmarks, was used to finance the resettlement of Jewish DPs in Israel and elsewhere. In 1951 Ferencz set up the United Restitution Organization to assist survivors in filing their claims for compensation. The following year, in March 1952, Ferencz took part in the reparations conference at Wassenaar (near The Hague), where negotiations were opened between the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the State of Israel and the Federal Republic of West Germany that resulted in the Reparations Agreement (March 1953) and Restitution Law (October 1953). With these tasks completed Ferencz was finally ready to return to the US with his wife and four children.
[Source: Ferencz, Benjamin B., USHMM oral testimony (transcript), August 26, 1994; October 21, 1994.]