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Lessons on combating genocide: Never give up


This year, we should remember Benjamin Berell Ferencz who led the Nuremberg prosecution of two dozen SS commanders, and his legacy: Law, not war.

It’s beyond belief that in the present day, genocide — a term coined by Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in 1944 — remains such a current topic.

This is why anniversaries matter. They allow us to commemorate important events, to teach and acknowledge.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda, which was triggered when the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down as it prepared to land in the capital city of Kigali, killing all on board. It’s also the 10th anniversary of the genocide against the Yazidis in northern Iraq perpetrated by ISIS.

And this year, too, we are marking the first anniversary of the death of Benjamin Berell Ferencz, a Nuremberg prosecutor at just age 27 — the youngest among his peers.

Ferencz was 103 years old when he died, and I interviewed him for my upcoming book, “Genocide — Personal Stories, Big Questions” when he was 101. He was amazingly on the ball, and still ever so clearly conveying the message he had spread ever since Nuremberg: Never give up.

It’s a lesson we need to remember now as we continue to combat tyranny, genocide and oppression in many parts of the world today.

Among his many accomplishments, Ferencz was one of the first to use the word genocide in court, at a time when there was no crime in international law for the annihilation of a people. Lemkin, who left Poland during World War II and lived in the United States after spending time in Sweden, fought to have genocide accepted as a separate crime with a specific definition to the end of his life. And it was finally adopted by the United Nations in 1948.

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, genocide is “an internationally recognized crime where specified acts, including mass killings, are committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.”

Heading the prosecution at the Einsatzgruppen trial at Nuremberg was Ferencz’s first major job as a lawyer. The Einsatzgruppen were mobile SS paramilitary death squads, assigned to kill Jews and others behind the eastern front. From 1941 to 1945, they murdered 1.3 million Jews, an estimated 250,000 Roma and another 500,00 partisans, people with disabilities, homosexuals, Slavic peoples and others.

All 24 defendants had been commanders of Einsatzgruppen units, and were in the “field actively superintending, controlling, directing, and taking an active part in the bloody harvest,” according to the tribunal’s final judgment. Twelve of them were sentenced to death by hanging, and the others were handed long prison terms.

Ending up as a lawyer wasn’t always in the cards for Ferencz. He arrived in the U.S. from Romania as a baby and said he was lucky to survive the boat journey. He cried so much, his father was tempted to throw him overboard — though his uncle made sure he was safe. And growing up in a rough neighborhood in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, he didn’t learn English until he was eight, speaking only Yiddish.

According to his school counselor, Ferencz had only two options: joining a gang or becoming a lawyer. Though he had no idea what the latter was, he certainly wasn’t going to join a gang. And he was so brilliant that Harvard offered him a scholarship.

But Ferencz was also riotously amusing, having a rock star effect on those around him. Dr. Susan Breau, a professor of international law, remembers him from an international criminal law course she took in Salzburg, when he was well into his 80s. “People just surrounded him everywhere he went, and he was mobbed like a god,” such was his charisma despite his diminutive stature — at the Einsatzgruppen trial, he could barely reach the podium. “He exuded love, loved his students, loved meeting people,” Breau said.

Until the end, Ferencz maintained his mantra: To stop genocide, we have to stop conflict. And to do that, to stop war, we need an international consensus. If we could eliminate armed conflict, there would be no genocide. Law, not war — that was his motto.

And one of the very many characteristics that made him so exceptional was his ability to remain optimistic. Some said he was naive, but this was a man who, in his own words, had “peered into hell.” Despite a world of setbacks, he believed the world was slowly changing for the better. And according to this legend of international justice, the proof of that was the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

This is a year in which to remember Ferencz and the lessons he taught. As he himself would remind us: Never give up.