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Last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor recalls VE Day

There weren't any celebrations, only relief that the fighting had finally ended. That's how longtime West Delray Beach resident Benjamin Ferencz, 95, remembers the official end of World War II in Europe seven decades ago this week.

"There was no 'hurray for us,' just 'the damn thing is over, let's get home.'"

On May 8th, 1945, Ferencz was a sergeant of infantry on assignment from Gen. George S. Patton as a U.S. Army war crimes investigator helping to liberate Nazi prisoners while at the same time gathering evidence of German atrocities.

"On that day, I was trying to find Hitler. I had just come from Mauthausen [concentration camp] in Austria and was headed from Linz to Vienna," he recalls.

Unknown to Ferencz, Adolf Hitler had killed himself a week earlier as the war was winding down to its inevitable conclusion.

"We had heard rumors, but didn't believe anything until we checked it out."

He had also heard rumors about the scale of the Nazi's heinous genocide, but wasn't prepared for what he saw in person.

"One could not adequately describe the horrors of the concentration camps," Ferencz said. "The scenes were irrational to the human mind. Total chaos. Smoke billowing out of the crematories. People behaving as animals. Bodies stacked in piles everywhere. Thousands murdered, laying side-by-side."

Though Jewish himself, Ferencz says he saw all people of all faiths and nationalities suffering in the camps at the end of the war.

"They were human beings. To see them treated in such an inhumane way has certainly influenced the remainder of my life."

Two years later, at age 27, Ferencz would return to Europe to serve as chief prosecutor of what was then called "the biggest murder trial in history."

The Nuremberg Trials were responsible for the conviction of 22 German SS (Schutzstaffel) officers for the murders of 1 million men, women and children.

"You couldn't let these guys go. We had cold-blooded killers on a grand scale," he said. "I wrapped up the case in two days without calling a single witness."

After their speedy convictions, 13 of the 22 convicted men were sent to their deaths.

Ferencz was born in Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania, now Romania, in 1920. As an infant, he moved with his family to New York City to escape persecution and poverty.

After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1943, he enlisted in the Army as part of a battalion preparing for the D-Day invasion of France and landed on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944.

Later that year, he survived the Battle of the Bulge and was awarded five battle stars for valor.

As Nazi atrocities were being revealed to the world, he was transferred to the Army's War Crimes Branch to begin gathering evidence he later would use at Nuremberg.

Ferencz spent several years in Germany after the war to help care for survivors, before returning to the States. He specialized in international law, has written 10 books and was instrumental in the founding of the International Criminal Court in 2002.

Ferencz bought a home in West Delray's Kings Point neighborhood in 1972 and still travels back and forth from New Rochelle, N.Y., where he and Gertrude, his wife of 69 years, raised their four children.

Even at age 95, he still keeps a hectic lecturing schedule, recently speaking at the United Nations and at his alma mater, Harvard Law School.

Although South Florida has a large number of retired World War II veterans, he has mostly stayed away from reunions.

"I don't participate in them because there's nothing to celebrate. It's too serious a topic," Ferencz said. "I spend 365 days a year trying to prevent war."

Ferencz's message is "make laws, not war." And as for whether the world has changed for the better in the 70 years since the war ended, he has mixed feelings.

"We have had an awakening of the human conscience, we're making fantastic progress. We've seen the liberation of women and the civil-rights movement.

"We're beginning to be more tolerant, but it's only beginning. Intolerance still exists everywhere. Our capacity to kill far exceeds our capacity to save lives. It'll take a few generations."

[Source: By Philip D. Latzman, Sun Sentinel, Ft. Lauderdale, 08May15]

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