What the last Nuremberg prosecutor alive wants the world to know


Ben Ferencz CBS NEWS

It is not often you get the chance to meet a man who holds a place in history like Ben Ferencz. He's 97 years old, barely 5 feet tall, and he served as prosecutor of what's been called the biggest murder trial ever. The courtroom was Nuremberg; the crime, genocide; the defendants, a group of German SS officers accused of committing the largest number of Nazi killings outside the concentration camps -- more than a million men, women, and children shot down in their own towns and villages in cold blood.

Ferencz is the last Nuremberg prosecutor alive today. But he isn't content just to be part of 20th century history -- he believes he has something important to offer the world right now.

It is not often you get the chance to meet a man who holds a place in history like Ben Ferencz. He's 97 years old, barely 5 feet tall, and he served as prosecutor of what's been called the biggest murder trial ever. The courtroom was Nuremberg; the crime, genocide; the defendants, a group of German SS officers accused of committing the largest number of Nazi killings outside the concentration camps -- more than a million men, women, and children shot down in their own towns and villages in cold blood.

Ferencz is the last Nuremberg prosecutor alive today. But he isn't content just to be part of 20th century history -- he believes he has something important to offer the world right now.

27-year-old Ben Ferencz became the chief prosecutor of 22 Einsatzgruppen commanders at Nuremberg.

Benjamin Ferencz: You oughta get some more friends.

Watching Ben Ferencz during his daily swim, his gym workout and his morning push-up regimen is to realize he isn't just the sunniest man we've ever met -- he may also be the fittest. And that's just the beginning.

This is Ferencz making his opening statement in the Nuremberg courtroom 70 years ago.

Ben Ferencz in court: The charges we have brought accuse the defendants of having committed crimes against humanity.

The Nuremberg trials after World War II were historic -- the first international war crimes tribunals ever held. Hitler's top lieutenants were prosecuted first. Then a series of subsequent trials were mounted against other Nazi leaders, including 22 SS officers responsible for killing more than a million people -- not in concentration camps -- but in towns and villages across Eastern Europe. They would never have been brought to justice were it not for Ben Ferencz.

Lesley Stahl: You look so young.

Benjamin Ferencz: I was so young. I was 27 years old.

Lesley Stahl: Had you prosecuted trials before?

Benjamin Ferencz: Never in my life. I don't—

Lesley Stahl: Come on.

Benjamin Ferencz: --recall if I'd ever been in a courtroom actually.

Ferencz had immigrated to the U.S. as a baby, the son of poor Jewish parents from a small town in Romania. He grew up in a tough New York City neighborhood where his father found work as a janitor.

Ben Ferencz, 1946.

Benjamin Ferencz: When I was taken to school at the age of seven, I couldn't speak English-- spoke Yiddish at home. And I was very small. And so they wouldn't let me in.

Lesley Stahl: So you didn't speak English 'til you were eight?

Benjamin Ferencz: That's correct

Lesley Stahl: Could you read?

Benjamin Ferencz: No, on the contrary. The silent movies always had writing on it. And I would ask my father, "Wazukas," in Yiddish, "What does it say? What does it say?" He couldn't read it, either.

But Ferencz learned quickly. He became the first in his family to go to college, then got a scholarship to Harvard Law School. But during his first semester, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and he, like many classmates, raced to enlist. He wanted to be a pilot, but the Army Air Corps wouldn't take him.

Benjamin Ferencz: They said, "No, you're too short. Your legs won't reach the pedals." The Marines, they just looked at me and said, "Forget it, kid."

So he finished at Harvard then enlisted as a private in the Army. Part of an artillery battalion, he landed on the beach at Normandy and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Toward the end of the war, because of his legal training, he was transferred to a brand new unit in General Patton's Third Army, created to investigate war crimes. As U.S. forces liberated concentration camps, his job was to rush in and gather evidence. Ferencz told us he is still haunted by the things he saw. And the stories he heard in those camps.

Benjamin Ferencz: A father who, his son told me the story. The father had died just as we were entering the camp. And the father had routinely saved a piece of his bread for his son, and he kept it under his arm at… He kept it under his arm at night so the other inmates wouldn't steal it, you know. So you see these human stories which are not -- they're not real. They're not real. But they were real.

Ferencz came home, married his childhood sweetheart and vowed never to set foot in Germany again. But that didn't last long. General Telford Taylor, in charge of the Nuremberg trials, asked him to direct a team of researchers in Berlin, one of whom found a cache of top-secret documents in the ruins of the German foreign ministry.

Benjamin Ferencz: He gave me a bunch of binders, four binders. And these were daily reports from the Eastern Front-- which unit entered which town, how many people they killed. It was classified, so many Jews, so many gypsies, so many others--

Ferencz had stumbled upon reports sent back to headquarters by secret SS units called Einsatzgruppen, or action groups. Their job had been to follow the German army as it invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, and kill Communists, Gypsies and especially Jews.

Screenshot from film showing the Einsatzgruppen at work.

Benjamin Ferencz: They were 3,000 SS officers trained for the purpose, and directed to kill without pity or remorse, every single Jewish man, woman, and child they could lay their hands on.

Lesley Stahl: So they went right in after the troops?