Ben Ferencz (cold open preview): I added them up and there were over a million people murdered by these squads. He said, “but we can’t put on a new trial now, the pentagon has already approved the budget for the others; the lawyers have all been assigned; the other trials are already starting, we can’t start over with a new trial.”
I lost my cool and said, “Look there is mass murder on a scale never before seen. You are not going to let these guys go. So he said, “can you do it in addition to your other work?” And I said, “Sure.” And then he said, “Okay, you do it.” So I became the chief prosecutor of what turned out to be the biggest murder trial in human history.
JR Biersmith (open): From 2728 Pictures this is Just Droppin In, a show about the global creators and influencers who are reframing the lens on people, places and ideas.
I’m J.R. BIersmith and on this episode, a look at the extraordinary life of Ben Ferencz, a man who prosecuted arguably the largest criminal trial the world has ever seen at 27 and now, 72 years later is still at it, along with is son fighting to save the world with law not war.
In 2017, the Academy Award nominated documentarian Marshall Curry, released a seven minute short film called a Night At The Garden. The Garden, is Madison Square Garden, New York City, 1939 and the marquee out front says
Tonight: Pro American Rally and then directly below it – as if what’s above it is so normal is another event: Tues. Hockey Rangers v Detroit and Wed: Fordham Basketball v Pittsburgh.
The footage is in black and white, presented in it’s original form because what we’re about to see is so jaw-dropping it didn’t need editing. We’re inside the garden now.
There’s a big flash of light – presumably from a photographer; remember it’s 1939.
From this angle on an ordinary night we’re in the 200 section staring down at helmet-less Rangers in the seven team NHL, but on this night the garden floor is iced over in a hate that had already consumed much of Germany.
20,000 American’s are standing with one arm extended toward a precession of flag baring women marching toward the stage. After the playing of the preamble the leader of the German American Bund, a pro Nazi federation, delivers one chilling line after another.
Minutes later, the film ends with a haunting shot from the rafters. The camera peers over an outstretched nazi salute and fades to text that says: At the same time of this gathering, Hitler was finishing construction of his sixth concentration camp.
Meanwhile, across town a 19-year-old five-foot-two Jewish immigrant from Transylvania would have been finishing up his undergraduate studies at the City College of New York. Soon, a young Ben Ferencz would make his way to Harvard Law where he would devour every book in his grasp about Crimes Against Humanity. An expertise that would come to define the rest of his life’s work and now, his sons.
Don Ferencz: I want to set the scene for you. We’re actually sitting at the kitchen table at his house (his father). I’ve got you on the phone, on a speaker phone, and when you’re ready to tell me I’m ready to hand him so you can speak directly with him. But I’m going to ask you Dad to come sit next to the computer. So Dad, meet J.R..
Ben Ferencz: Hello J.R., this is B.B.F. The ball’s in your court.
J.R. Biersmith: Hi, how are you? Pleasure to meet you and thanks for using your initials too. Would you like me to call you Mr. Ferencz or how would you like me to proceed? What’s best.
Ben Ferencz: You can call me Ben.
J.R. Biersmith: Okay.
Ben Ferencz: Okay, the ball is in your court then.
J.R. Biersmith : With the ball in my court my first question was about the Gangs of New York that gave Hell’s Kitchen on the west of New York City its reputation long before Ben’s parents brought him from Transylvania as an infant.
Ben Ferencz: My first contact was with gangs. I was mascot. I was a small child then. The kids would always be playing craps on the sidewalk or in the road- there was no traffic in those days, there were horses. I would be the lookout and stand on the corner of 8th avenue and keep an eye out when the cops were coming at which time I would have to shout, “Chicky the cops.” And they would all run away and the cop would come running after them waving his club and leave the pot which was usually 8-10 pennies that were left in the middle of the street. The cop would come back and pick up the pennies and nickles and put them in his pocket. When I caught on to that very easy so that when he started chasing them, I cleaned out most of the pot.
J.R. Biersmith: All right. That’s so scrappy.
Ben Ferencz: It was one of my early sources of revenue as a criminal (laughing). And the gangs would be fighting with each other. Italian on one side and Irish on the other and the idea was that each one had a turf and you had to take care of the guys that crossed over. That was my playground. My parents got divorced when I was about six. My father had taken me school but they wouldn’t admit me because I was too small and I didn’t speak English and they’d say come back next year. They did that for a few years but when they divorced, I went to live with an aunt in Brooklyn.
J.R. Biersmith How did you learn English?
Ben Ferencz: I couldn’t learn English because I couldn’t read what was on there. I couldn’t read and my father couldn’t read either. I asked him in Yiddish, “What does it say?” He said, “I don’t know.”
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Ben Ferencz: The first thing I asked myself when I left Harvard Law school during the war was where can I do the most good?
J.R. Biersmith: Ben’s first idea for how he might do the most good he took to the FBI. Because he spoke French he thought he could masquerade as a French-Canadian and blow up key nazi trains and targets in occupied France. He was denied, not because the idea was bad but because his dad’s citizenship had been accepted only 14 years earlier and they told him it had to be 15. Next, he went to the Air Force but as he likes to say, his feet didn’t reach the pedals. And he couldn’t do the Navy because he had an incident as a kid with swimming that still frightened him. So it was on to the Army.
Ben Ferencz: Eventually I did get into the Army and I was assigned to the 115 gun betallion.
Ben’s pen along with dozens of letters between he and his wife Gertrude are now part of the US Holocaust museum in Washington DC. Because Ben was commissioned by General Patton’s office as a war crimes expert to go into the concentration camps and collect evidence while they were being liberated these letters are classified by the museum as nationals treasures.
After all these years, Ben tries not to talk too much about all that he saw during those days- the images are still to vivid, the pain to a actute. One story he does tell and I’ve long wanted to ask him about was the schriber who saved all the SS officers passbooks. He was supposed to have thrown them all away instead he saved them in a box and buried them by an electrical fence. He risked is life hoping one day a man like Ben might show up.