From D-Day to prosecuting Nazis: Before the trials, Nuremberg prosecutor began as soldier

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Benjamin Ferencz will be the first to tell you if your choice in World War II literature is sub-par. He would know because he lived it.

“This is not particularly a good book,” Ferencz said of a magazine-style book on the war. He pointed to the pages of one chapter.

“This is the opening of the courtroom there,” he said. “These are the defendants in the international military trial.”

That trial was Nuremberg. The defendants were Nazis. And Ferencz was one of the prosecutors.

“I was 27 and I’d never tried a case, I’d never even been in a courtroom,” he recalled.

Now 99, he’s the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg Trials. But to understand how a 27-year-old New Yorker wound up prosecuting history’s biggest murder trial, you have to go back to the year 1941, at Harvard University.

“I applied to the law school because I felt, because of my short height, that I had to be better than everybody else. I was told that Harvard Law School was the best school in the world,” he said.

Ferencz wanted to join the war effort, but it was a struggle.

“Immediately, everyone I knew went down to enlist. We went down to Harvard Square,” he said. “I thought, 'What could I do that was best for my country?' I spoke French fairly well and the Germans had occupied France. And I felt, 'Well, if they dropped me behind the lines in France and teach me how to use dynamite, I’d make it so hard for the Germans, they’d wish they were back in Berlin!'”

However, he quickly learned it would be harder than he thought.

“Wherever it was, whereever I went, there was some excuse why they didn’t want to take me,” he said.

At first, he wanted to join the Army Air Corps.

“But they tested me, and I couldn’t reach the pedals,” he said. “And I said, 'How about a navigator?' but they tested me for that and said, 'If we told you to bomb Berlin, you’d probably end up in Tokyo!'”

He decided maybe the timing wasn’t right.

“My dear mother said, 'Go back to school. If they need you, they’ll call you,'” he remembered.

The Army took him after graduation and he served in the 115th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion. His first assignment: The invasion of France, or D-Day.

“It was very much a grueling scene,” he said. "There were a lot of dead bodies floating face-down in the water with American uniforms. We went forward through what had been the city of St. Lo. All of the houses had fallen into the road. We were driving over the houses in the tanks. Anybody in St. Lo was certainly killed. And it made a big impression on me.”

He served in Patton’s Third Army, but as the war was winding down, his greatest assignment was just beginning.

“I was taken out of the artillery. I reported to the judge advocate and he said, 'We’ve been given orders by Washington to set up a war crimes branch,'” Ferencz explained. “The president of the U.S. had met with Churchill, and they agreed the Germans would be held accountable for their crimes, and [my] name [was] forwarded to us from Washington.”

It was his former Harvard professor, Sheldon Glueck, who remembered Ferencz from a war crimes class.

“I had a pretty good idea what I was getting into,” he said. "Glueck was getting reports from Europe of atrocities that were being committed. There were refugee lawyers that were fleeing to London that sent a group for war crimes studies and they were sending reports in and the reports were quite gruesome.”

Coming into the camps, he said, was quite a different story.

“They were starving, they were literally dying,” he said.

His quest for justice was just beginning.

NEXT STORY: Nuremberg prosecutor recalls evidence of Nazis' war crimes