When Benjamin Ferencz was 27 years old, he prosecuted his very first trial. There were 22 defendants, each of them high-ranking members of Nazi Germany's death squad. The entire world was watching.

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00:01:23reading you show me all my name is Benjamin friends and I'm being interviewed in Delray Beach Florida with a request to give you an outline of what I've been doing with my life and some things which may be of interest and hopefully will lead to a more Humane and better world and friends this home we sat side-by-side into computer chairs at his desk and if I had any idea that I was going to be the one leading the conversation I quickly learned I was wrong where did I get these Korea ideas well I was born 99 years ago in a little village in Transylvania now I know that most of your never heard of Transylvania although you have some connection with my uncle Dracula of course there is no such but there was a Transylvania
00:02:18everything about him seems much younger than his 99 years part of that might be because of his morning routine hey physical routine for get out of bed
00:02:35where's my feet at night wiggle my toes and I turn my legs around in circles and do that for quite a bit and then I do 25 sit-ups and then I get out of bed then after some toiletries I go to my breathing open the door 25 x in and out while I bend over and do other things waving my hands around then I do the world famous world famous
00:03:09how did 25 push-ups
00:03:16I've never met anybody like him he is a wild sense of humor that I wasn't expecting from someone who's had such a serious career
00:03:25Benjamin friends is a last surviving prosecutor of what's been called the largest murder trial in history a trial with more than a million victims I'm Phoebe judge this is Criminal
00:03:49my sister was born in the same bed that I was born a year and a half earlier and the one thing we have in common with it whatever was called home will remain yours if they persecuted the Jews and they went to work for them so my parents decided after they had two little babies to take up the babies and look for a better place to live
00:04:14Wayfair sail away on a ship cross the Atlantic to New York in December of 1921
00:04:23we traveled third class because it was no fourth class we arrived in New York Harbor with no money no friends no language no skills let me Skip Along because it's been a long life Benjamin friends was admitted to a New York City High School for gifted students and went on to enter Harvard Law School then the war broke out while in school Japan attack the United States everybody that I knew went down to enlist I went to he wanted to work in intelligence but he wasn't eligible because he was an immigrant his second choice was to become an Airforce pilot but he was rejected because they said he wasn't tall enough
00:05:08so he enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the hundred 15th AAA Gun Battalion he landed on the Normandy beaches and in the coming months fought in most of the major battles in World War II Normandy the Siegfried line Final Battle of the Bulge and then because he done a lot of research on war crimes in law school he was assigned to work on the newly forming us war crimes branch
00:05:37what a war crime in a war crime technically it's simply a violation of the rules of warfare which have been agreed to in the number of treaties most I'm shining the Hague. Under the sponsorship of the Swiss government for example we've had war crimes beginning since War began with little David and Goliath in the head with a rock will times have changed when we began when the drugs began dropping poison gas into the trenches in World War one and they were dying a horrible death the world came together with the first hate conventions saying some things you cannot do in the war you cannot shoot your enemy in the back you cannot you refuse to take prisoners you cannot use poison gas trying to make more more human that is absurd absolutely absurd I can assure any of your business
00:06:37or is on the war crimes rules is laid down in a war I forgotten your problem is you kill the other guy before he kills you
00:06:46most of the cases investigated involve German soldiers Killing American prisoners he says he sometimes had to dig up bodies of American pilots who been shot down and beaten to death he would write a report describing the crime listing suspects and naming which laws of war had been violated and then his assignment changed
00:07:10the beginning reading reports that there are people coming out of looks like work camps and they're all dressed in something looks like pajamas and they all look like that dying is skinny
00:07:22the first concentration camp Benjamin friends was ordered to visit was one of the largest buchenwald an estimated 56000 prisoners were killed there before was liberated in 1845
00:07:36concentration camps were being liberated one after another and Benjamin friends was assigned to get to them and collect as much evidence as possible as quickly as possible he was looking for official Camp records Registries of who'd been killed and which German guards and officers have done the killing
00:07:57how many camps did you actually go to take report a bug bug bug College Chorale and I would cease all the records in the Gap I would go to the camp commander of the the German was in shock on the American who was in charge and I'd say I'm here on orders of the president of United States and I'm like 10 minute mediately surround the tribe store which is the office for the records are nobody goes in or out without my permission and I season the record-keeping office where they kept records the Germans God bless him a very careful when they murder somebody that cable list first I want to know his name know how old he is away came from and I had the Toten
00:08:57you should totally wear the death Registries how many people were killed one of the inmates he grabbed me when I came down a hug me and he said I've been waiting for
00:09:11I couldn't have difficulty recording these stories about some chill emotionally affected with what I saw and he led me to a place near the Bob wire electrified walleye around the camp I got a shovel with him and he dug up a little boy in box inside the box for identity cards little booklets like a passport the German soldiers would have stamped whenever they came and went a little passport book was filled they got another one he was supposed to destroy the old one
00:09:47he didn't accept them now every time he did that think of his life into his hands they would have shot him dead on the spot if they had seen what he was doing and he held them and those one that he buried them in a box and if I'm waiting for the Liberation day. Of course was invaluable a piece of evidence as to who was in the car at what time
00:10:13what were you thinking after seeing all the things that you would seem I was not thinking I shut off my brain so this is not real these are not the song Victim Sharon I can't stop and then I'm thinking they could I just get your job done get your job done get the hell out of here there was disease ramping dysentery diarrhea ratchet filter and get out get out write your report and I wrote my report first chance I got and with all the information boys in the camp with the Commander's how many people were there at
00:10:54I put that Satori
00:10:58when he visited the ebensee concentration camp in Austria he described in a letter that prisoners were so frail many were being carried like babies to a field hospital he wrote no one who has not seen it can visualize the scene
00:11:15the inmates called one of the Gods
00:11:18and they beat him up I was there when they call him my name and put him in alive they strap them to the gurney which is what they use to metal do I need to slide the bodies into the oven and put them in South Dakota and they pulled him out
00:11:40you're still alive they beat him up again and then they put him in again and they cook them slowly
00:11:54prisoners were killing the God's Vengeance could have stopped it probably not do I remembered I do
00:12:15what's the next question
00:12:23on the day after Christmas in 1945 he was discharged with the rank of Sergeant he went back to New York got married to his longtime girlfriend Gertrude and plan to practice law
00:12:36at the same time a trial was beginning in Germany leaders of the Nazi party were being prosecuted by an international Military Tribunal the trial was taking place in a town called Nuremberg at the palace of Justice
00:12:52this was the first Nuremberg Trial nothing like it has ever been done before it was controversial and the guilt of the defendant wasn't really in question so some wondered about the trials legitimacy but the American Chief prosecutor Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson said it was important to create a detailed record of what it happened under Hitler's regime he said that if a record was not made quote future Generations would not believe how horrible the truth was
00:13:2512 more trials would follow and Benjamin friends was sent to Berlin to search Nazi offices and archives for evidence of crimes committed not only by Nazi leaders but also doctors lawyers and businessmen
00:13:41so we want to put the doctors on trial for medical experiments we want to put the lawyers on for perverting the law we want to put the SS on for mass murder we want to put the farm minutes is on trial for final drink the rest of the world we want to explain how it was a civilized country like Germany could allow these things to happen in to make them happen to do the things which I did over the course of his research in Berlin another group he thought to be tried the einsatzgruppen the word that means Action Group in is groups I need action groups were signed to kill Without Pity or remorse every single Jewish man woman or child they could lay their hands on and to do the same with Gypsies and anybody else who might be a suspected potential enemy of the reisch
00:14:37and it would 3,000 men divided into groups a b c and d i
00:14:43came up on reports of these einsatzgruppen daily reports top secret sent from the front to Berlin where they were Consolidated and sent out and I had a distribution list of 99 people would later said I didn't know anything about it and they reported Faithfully who was the commander in charge how many Jews did killed in which town and I had a little adding machine I added them up when I reached a million over a million people murdered by dish Brooks we have to put on trial
00:15:18Benjamin friends flew the records to Nuremberg and show them to the chief prosecutor and asked for an additional trial
00:15:26he said no we can't depending on his show proof of the budget we cannot expect any additional trials because there's a lot of opposition to it as well and all the lawyers are signs the other drawers already started and I shouldn't coconut Lucky's million murderous get Coco this is the biggest murder trial in history who cannot just simply safe because we run out of space on money you can't you can't let him go and he said well can you do it in addition to your other work supervisor search for documents okay you're ready so I became the chief prosecutor avoid lady was known as the biggest murder trial in human history
00:16:24we'll be right back
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00:17:05Benjamin friends was assigned to the chief prosecutor for the einsatzgruppen case he was only 27 years old and he never tried a case before he says he never even been to court there were 22 defendants members of the special so-called action groups I should look I don't want to talk to you if I didn't I had researchers who spoke German German refugees I want you to go down interrogate this guy I want to know everything about him the moment he was born you get all the information back to me but I didn't want to talk and I sure don't see nothing horrible and I didn't want to set up any human connection because I had picked it up and dance and I had picked them out of a list of 3000 we had to rush. All of them are high-ranking at 6 General something I don't remember the account and I selected them
00:18:02how did you why did you select those that were higher rank responsibility begin to the top it doesn't begin at the bottom
00:18:15Lowe's assembler
00:18:17how do you feed tradition Dyke guilty or not guilty
00:18:23Mick Foley
00:18:25Walden District 9 sugar
00:18:29how do you plead guilty or not guilty
00:18:35we are not ready to hear the presentation by the prosecution Benjamin friends and arrogance
00:18:50vengeance is not our goal
00:18:53nor do we seek merely a just retribution
00:18:58we ask this court to look firm by International penal action
00:19:04man's right to live in peace and dignity
00:19:09regardless of his race or Creed
00:19:13the case my present is a plea of humanity to law
00:19:21and I did not ask for the death penalty I gave it very deep thought what am I going to ask for
00:19:29you got these 22 guys there they have murdered over me and people there's no question about that guilt
00:19:37schedule chop them up into a million pieces you feed them to the dogs shed that would be ridiculous just hang them shoot him take them out and have a public display I should know I'd be ridiculous till I told you 50 when I have any meaning to this trial
00:19:56we have to be aware Forest that the victim was slaughtered because they didn't share the race the religion ever the ideology of the execution is I should have I could turn that around and make it a crime to kill somebody because he doesn't share your right as your color or your political persuasion if you can get that a crime against humanity if you can get that out then you will protect future Generations at least to some extent and it will be worthwhile and more meaningful than what you do with these 22 murderous
00:20:37the 22 defendants are found guilty of membership in a criminal organization war crimes and of committing crimes against humanity
00:20:4614 of the 22 were sentenced to death
00:20:54my personal reaction
00:20:59was very sad though I didn't say her a good for you and go on the contrary I got a splitting headache every time he said tribunal sentence you to death by hanging it was like a hammer hitting me in the head so that's what this tribunal next I thought my head was going to bust and in fact we had planned this is customary when the trial came to an end the chief prosecutor had a party for his staff and I had to plan a party for my staff and I couldn't go to my own body I called home with me and my house I said I'm going to bed
00:21:44so it was not one of Joy or Victory it was your experience
00:22:00after the trial he and his wife Gertrude stayed in Germany they had four children all born in Nuremberg he worked on restitution and reparations efforts and helped return property to Holocaust Survivors if you're doing somebody a harm wrongful harm you have an obligation trying to make good by either compensating him or trying to repair the Damage Done That was a guiding principle a very simple principle of justice and would that end with no experience whatsoever in doing such a thing but had never happened after a while they looked at each other's defeating have to pay off the victim and reparations and she never work but the individual compensation if I'd been tried before and I said we do it now
00:22:47then after that of course is a after you stopped at War
00:22:54punish criminals compensation for the victims The Next Step the most important to prevent it from happening again and that's what I've been doing ever since
00:23:06in 1956 he returned to the United States with his family to begin a career in private law practice and he started writing about international law and speaking about his experiences at Nuremberg
00:23:19his ideas were instrumental in the development of the international criminal court at the Hague he gave the closing statement in the courts first case against a Congolese warlord you still working today but 99 I asked him about retirement and he said he has no desire to play golf
00:23:39can you care for your wife of course that's probably publication number one because we have the world record a I'm sure my wife I Married an older woman she's about 5 months old and up
00:23:54we have been happily married since 1946 Coral that's pretty damn good. How is that possible it's very possible first of all I'm not suggesting we didn't know difference in opinion but we never raised ovoid never shouted we never found in the table because it's mutual respect and caring for each other they have a funny word for that I don't like love I don't like the way that you could love piece of cheese capital of DD lovely day I can love the wrong I love to finish this interview and I say hey if you say caring for somebody that's reflect better and my wife now needs my cat's picture take-home pay you know this is payback time
00:24:53in 2016 Benjamin friends quietly donated $1000000 to the Holocaust museum in Washington the footpath next to the peace Palace at the Hague was named after him
00:25:24criminal is produced by Lawrence for Nidia Wilson and Me by Rob buyers are in turn special thanks to Michael Wilkerson Julian Alexander makes original illustrations for each episode of Criminal you can see them at this is Criminal. Com or on Facebook and Twitter at criminal show Criminal is recorded in the studios of North Carolina public radio wunc were proud member of radiotopia from PRX a collection of the best shows around shows like radio Diaries radio Diaries Tales extraordinary stories of ordinary life this summer they have a brand new series called last witness audio portraits of the last surviving witnesses to major historical events including the story of 103 year olds Olivia hooker the last survivor of the Tulsa race riot of 1921 I guess the most shocking thing
00:26:23what seeing people to whom you had never done anything to irritate who just took it upon themselves to destroy the property
00:26:37because they didn't want you to have those things and it would teaching you a lesson
00:26:45those are all new ideas today but
00:26:52I guess that's part of the growing process
00:26:57don't listen special things to answer for providing their ad serving platform to radio Topia I'm Phoebe judge this is Criminal

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