Last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor recalls evidence of Nazis' war crimes

More than a half-century has passed since Benjamin Ferencz rushed into the first of many concentration camps as Nazi Germany fell. Yet the sights and sounds are seared into his memory.

"It was the chaos of war," Ferencz recalled. "The SS were fleeing the camps; the Americans were shooting after them and chasing after them. Those inmates who were still able to get up were chasing after the guards who were there."

Ferencz was 26. His job was to find evidence that would bring Adolf Hitler’s henchmen to justice.

"I’d go into the office, and there I would find the death registries: Who had been in the camp, what transports had arrived, the names of those who had been killed in different transports," he said. "It was a gold mine of information from a war crimes point of view."

Ferencz stockpiled evidence from 10 camps, including Auschwitz. 

Though most inmates were too sick to move, he recalls one grueling experience in which a group of men tackled an SS officer to the ground.

“And they were all kicking him and beating him. And some guy came along with a gurney, which was what they used to dump them in the crematorium. And they take him and they put him in the crematorium, and they cooked him. They put him in slowly and pulled him out, put him in again, and then took him out, just to keep him alive. And when they pulled him out, they’d beat him up again. They killed him.”

Just a few yards away, he thought about stopping them.

"And I talked to myself," Ferencz explained. "I said, ‘Well, how am I going to stop them?’ I could fire a few shots into the air, but I thought, ‘I’m not going to be able to stop this anyway.’ And I must confess, I said, ‘Let them do it.’"


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After the main trials of 1945-1946, the U.S. wanted 12 more trials to prosecute Nazi leadership. While in Berlin, Ferencz came across a treasure trove of documents. It said, in German, “Reports from the Eastern Front,” along with the date, and it was marked “top secret.”

"These were the reports from the Eastern Front of special units,” Ferencz said. “All Einsatzgruppen.”

Translated literally, Einsatzgruppen means "action groups." Ferencz says that was intentional.

"They were deliberately given a nondescript title because their mission was to kill, without pity or remorse, every single Jewish man woman or child their could lay their hands on," he said. "And they would follow behind the German lines and gather the Jews and kill them all. They considered them racially inferior and would contaminate the German blood. So you’d treat them as you’d treat any insect. Exterminate them."

The documents detailed just how many.


“I took a little adding machine and I added it up," he said. "I came to a million. And I said, that’s enough. I took a sampling and took the next plane from Berlin to Nuremberg."

His boss, General Telford Taylor, told him the Pentagon didn’t have the staff for another trial.

“I began to scream," he said. "I said, 'Look here, I have mass murder on an unparalleled scale. This is cold, calculated mass murder, on a scale unheard of! Thousands of children were shot and killed, you can’t let it go!' He asked, 'Can you do it in addition to your other work?' And I said, of course!” 

There was just one small problem. 

"I had never been in a courtroom," he laughed. "I’d never tried a case! But I knew criminal law! So he said, ‘OK, you do it.’"

Justice for those murdered by the Einsatzgruppen was on its way, and Ferencz was going to hand deliver it. 

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