Inspiring Wisdom From Last Surviving Nuremberg Prosecutor

'It takes courage not to be discouraged': 97-year-old Ben Ferencz
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted May 10, 2017 6:44 PM CDT
Last Living Nuremberg Prosecutor: 'Sunniest Man' You'll Meet
Ben Ferencz offers a chilling narrative infused with optimism, culled from his knowledge of what happened at the hands of Nazi soldiers.   (Getty Images/Georgethefourth)

He was front and center at what some call the biggest murder trial in history. That would be the Nuremberg hearings, which brought German SS soldiers forward to face the consequences for their role in the massacre of more than a million people outside of the concentration camps. Lesley Stahl interviews 97-year-old Ben Ferencz, the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor, for 60 Minutes, and she's astounded that this man who's witnessed "the ugliest side of humanity" is the "sunniest man I've ever met." Ferencz, a Romanian immigrant who settled in New York as a child, never let his short stature (he's just 5 feet tall) hold him back, receiving a law scholarship to Harvard and enlisting in the US Army. He eventually became part of a war crimes unit and was sent into concentration camps as they were liberated to scoop up evidence. Now, Ferencz wants to impart what he learned.

He talks about finding top-secret reports documenting how special units of Nazis called Einsatzgruppen, or "action groups," were "directed to kill without pity or remorse, every single Jewish man, woman, and child they could lay their hands on." He explains how, while he was "churning" inside, defendants at the trials usually just wore blank stares ("like [they were] waiting for a bus"), though he makes a stunning observation about the men most deemed monsters. "War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people," he says, noting that, in such a man's mind, he's not a "savage beast" while carrying out atrocious acts—he's "a patriotic human being acting in the interest of his country." Ferencz also offers advice for those facing modern-day atrocities across the globe: "It takes courage not to be discouraged." More fascinating insights here. (Germany's top Nazi hunter keeps turning up elderly ex-Nazis.)

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