Benjamin B. Ferencz sits in Eliot Dining Hall spooning soup into his mouth. Squarish eyeglasses perched atop his nose, Ferencz jokingly tells me to stop interrogating him so that he can eat his soup in peace.
At 94 years old, Ferencz is the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials—which the Allied forces held after World War II for the prosecution of the Nazi leadership. He spent much of his career after the trials working the creation of an International Criminal Court that would handle issues of crimes against humanity and war crimes. The court was ultimately established under his leadership in 2002.
On April 10, Ferencz returned to Harvard. “Tell me your problems,” Ferencz says to me, trying to distract me from the impending interview. I tell him that I have none, that I want to hear his story. The interview begins before Ferencz can sneak back into the servery for dessert.
1. Fifteen Minutes: As a child, did you want to be a lawyer?
Benjamin Ferencz: I was raised in a high crime area in New York. New York at that time was [full] of bootleggers. The Irish gangs would be fighting the Italian gangs for terf. I saw much of crime at a very early age, and decided that I’d rather be on the other side.
I won a scholarship at Harvard Law School for my exam on Criminal Law. I was a poor boy with no money. Without that [scholarship], this would’ve been a much shorter story.
2. FM: How did you come to be part of the Nuremberg trial prosecution?
BF: It was because of my training at Harvard Law School, where I worked as a research assistant to a professor of criminology, [Professor Glueck], that I learned about war crimes. I read every book on the subject at Harvard Law Library. That enabled me to be selected and become a war crime lawyer.
3. FM: Nearly half of the people prosecuted in the case you dealt with were sentenced to the death penalty. How did you feel about that at that time?
BF: It was not a joyous thing for me. I didn’t celebrate. I was relieved that the trial was over. The lead defendant admitted to killing 90,000 Jews. What is the appropriate penalty for that? Anything less would encourage others to do the same. And why should the innocent have to support a man in prison who has done such a crime? We have to think of future victims. Imagine if you were a surviving child and he killed all the members of your family, and then you have to support him in prison and feed him and take care of his health. That would lead to vengeance, justifiable vengeance.
4. FM: During your time serving in the army, did you ever have any moments when you stared into the eyes of your enemy and had a realization?
BF: That’s Hollywood. War is hell. Innocent people killing other innocent people they don’t even know for reasons they don’t even know. I walked down along the Vietnam War Memorial and I kept asking myself: Why, why had all these young people been killed? Why couldn’t we settle this by peaceful means? There is no glory in war. You cannot kill an ideal with a gun.
5. FM: I saw that you were born in Transylvania, and I noticed that you were speaking German at the Eliot House German Table before I arrived. What foreign languages do you know?
BF: Hungarian, French, Spanish, German, but that doesn’t matter. It’s not what language you speak, it’s what you say. And more importantly, it’s what you do.
6. FM: What do you think is a big problem with the law?
BF: Law should be based not merely on comparing criminal statute with particular behavior, although that’s part of it. You have to go much deeper than that. You must change the ethics of the people. You must have more respect for law and order. The biggest crime of all is illegal war-making and it’s what I’ve been trying to stop, not only nation states making war but also radical groups. We have to condemn illegal use of an armed force: The leaders responsible should be called to account if they know in advance that [their actions] will kill large numbers of innocent civilians. That is a crime against humanity and should be punishable as such.
7. FM: What is your solution to solving problems around the world?
BF: There are very many nasty people in this world. I will give you a three word solution. Law, not war. No matter what the decision is in law, and there may be miscarriages in law, it will always be better than war.
8. FM: What is your motto or credo?
BF: Peace and dignity. That has been my credo all my life and remains the same today. We have to have a world where all people are entitled to live in peace and freedom, regardless of their race or creed.
9. FM: What is your advice for those lawyers who might be dealing with cases that everyone else seems to be against?
BF: Never give up. Never give up. Never give up. Those are my three pieces of advice. If you feel strongly that you’re right, keep on striving to do what you know is right or think is right. Sometimes the situation will change. The law is constantly changing and has to change to keep up with the needs of society. Keep trying.
10. FM: Many people want to change the world, but at the same time feel as if they might not have the power. What do you say to them?
BF: That’s ridiculous. I was a poor immigrant boy. I’m five feet tall. I had no money. I served as a busboy in Divinity School, and ate the leftovers and I was thankful for those leftovers. Otherwise, I would have starved to death. I’ve been given so many muddling awards I can’t keep track of them. If I can do it, why can’t you? Why can’t others?
As the interview wraps up, Eliot Dining Hall is emptying out. Ferencz lays down his fork and pushes his tray towards me, implying that he wants me to clear his dishes. “Make her work for her interview,” he chuckles.