At 99-years-old he is still giving talks on human rights and international law. Picture: Benjamin Ferencz/Facebook
At 99-years-old he is still giving talks on human rights and international law. Picture: Benjamin Ferencz/Facebook

Meet the man who took down notorious Nazi death squad

WARNING: Sensitive content

AFTER seeing the horrific crimes committed by possibly the most ruthless Nazi death squad during World War II, Benjamin Ferencz knew he had to hold them responsible for the million brutal murders that occurred at their hands.

At just 27-years-old Mr Ferencz stood against 22 high ranking officials of these death groups in what would later be known as the largest murder trial in history.

In an interview with US journalist Phoebe Judge for the Criminal podcast, a now 99-year-old Mr Ferencz explained how he ended up facing off against some of the war's most horrific criminals.

He was born in Transylvania in 1919 before travelling to America with his parents and younger sister via boat.

"We travelled third class because there was no fourth class," he said.

"We arrived in New York harbour with no money, no friends, no language, no skills."

Mr Ferencz played an integral part in brining some of the most violent war criminals to justice. Picture: Benjamin Ferencz/Facebook
Mr Ferencz played an integral part in brining some of the most violent war criminals to justice. Picture: Benjamin Ferencz/Facebook

But despite their difficult start, Mr Ferencz excelled in his studies and eventually got into Harvard Law School. But his dreams of being a lawyer were put on hold when the war broke out and he, along with everyone else he knew, enlisted in the army.

He fought in many of the major battles including Normandy, the Siegfried line and the Battle of the Bulge.

Due to his previous study into war crimes at university, he was later assigned to work as part of the newly formed US war crimes branch.

A war crime is defined as "an act carried out during the conduct of a war that violates accepted international rules of war". It was Mr Ferencz job to identify who were committing war crimes and when, where and how they were taking place.

"The world came together with the first Hague Convention saying there are some things you cannot do in a war," he said.

"You cannot shoot your enemy in the back, you cannot refuse to take prisoners, you cannot use poison gas. Trying to make war more humane.

At 99-years-old he is still giving talks on human rights and international law. Picture: Benjamin Ferencz/Facebook
At 99-years-old he is still giving talks on human rights and international law. Picture: Benjamin Ferencz/Facebook

"That is absurd, absolutely absurd. When a war is on the rules that are laid down in a war are forgotten. [The rule you] follow is you kill the other guy before he kills you."

In the beginning the branch was mostly tasked with investigating war crimes committed by German's against US soldiers.

But soon their assignment turned to the crimes being committed in concentration camps.

"We begin getting reports that there are people coming out of what looks like war camps and their all dressed in something that looks like pyjamas," Mr Ferencz said.

"And they all look like they are dying, they're skinny."

His job was to go into the camps as they were being dismantled and seize as many records as he could to try and figure out the names of the officers responsible for the crimes on that particular site.

Buchenwald was the first concentration camp he was ever assigned to visit. Picture: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images
Buchenwald was the first concentration camp he was ever assigned to visit. Picture: Jens Schlueter/Getty Images

"The Germans, god bless them, are very careful. When they murder somebody they keep a list," he said.

"First they want to know his name, they want to know how old he is, where he came from and I had the death registries of how many people were killed."

He visited over ten different camps, collecting evidence and writing reports.

He revealed the only way he could cope with the horrors he saw was to "shut off his brain".

"I said 'this is not real, these are not human beings. These aren't victims here and I can't stop and think'. I just thought 'get your job done and get the hell out of here'," Mr Ferencz said.

While he was at Ebensee camp in Austria he witnessed the brutal punishment the prisoners dealt out to one of the German guards they captured.

"They then took him to the crematorium and put him in, alive. They strapped him to the gurney that they used to slide the bodies into the oven," he said.

"They put him in and started to cook him and then they pulled him out. He was still alive, they beat him up again and then they put him in again and they cooked him slowly."

He said the only way to cope with the horror of what he saw was to cut himself off from it. Picture: AP
He said the only way to cope with the horror of what he saw was to cut himself off from it. Picture: AP

On the day after Christmas in 1945, Mr Ferencz was honourably discharged with the rank of Sergeant but his work investigating Nazi war crimes wasn't over.

He was sent to gather evidence for the Nuremberg war crimes trials, in order to prosecute German doctors, lawyers, judges, generals and anyone else who played a key role in Nazi brutalities.

During his search, Mr Ferencz came across the sickening crimes of a special task force known as the Einsatzgruppen.

"These action groups were assigned to kill without pity or remorse every single Jewish man, woman and child they could lay their hands on. And to do the same with gypsies and anybody else who could be a potential enemy of the Reich," he said.

"They reported faithfully who was in charge, how many Jews they killed and in which town. I had a little adding machine, I added them up to over a million people murdered by these groups."

He was made the Chief Prosecutor for The Einsatzgruppen Case, with 22 high ranking members of the Nazi death squad charged with murdering over a million people.

This was Mr Ferencz's first case and first time in court.

All the defendants were prosecuted.

Mr Ferencz revealed he purposefully decided not to pursue the death penalty, saying it would be more meaningful to ensure that a law was put in place making it a crime to kill someone over race, religion or ideology like the victims were.

But despite this, 13 members were sentenced to death.

"I got a splitting headache every time he said 'the tribunal sentences you to death by hanging'," he said.

"Boom! It was like a hammer hitting me in the head. I thought my head was going to burst."

He said he goal was not to seek vengeance, it was to ensure nothing like this would ever happen again.

After the trial, Mr Ferencz dedicated his life to helping victims and their families who were displaced after the war.

He lives with his wife Gertrude in Florida and continues to write and speak on the subjects of international law and global peace.



Young woman critical after car rolls down highway embankment

Young woman critical after car rolls down highway embankment

CREWS said it was a tough task getting the woman in her 20s free

Council responds to calls for improvement to Turkey Beach Rd

premium_icon Council responds to calls for improvement to Turkey Beach Rd

It comes after former Miriam Vale mayor John Bell spoke out on it.

Gladstone transport business among 17 owing $570k

premium_icon Gladstone transport business among 17 owing $570k

Workers can now claim unpaid entitlements.

Local Partners