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“I was the chief prosecutor in what was certainly the biggest murder trial in human history,” says Ben Ferencz, the last surviving Nuremberg Trials prosecutor and the subject of Barry Avrich‘s acclaimed new documentary feature Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz, as we sit down at h Club LA to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s Awards Chatter podcast. Ferencz, a 99-year-old Hungarian-born Jew, served the U.S. Army valiantly during World War II, fighting in numerous storied battles before becoming an investigator of Nazi war crimes at numerous concentration camps as the war wound to a close. And, after the Allied powers’ victory, Ferencz, at the tender age of just 27, was recruited to represent the the U.S. Army at the Einsatzgruppen Trial. As he puts it, “I had no experience. I had never been in a courtroom before. But I knew my stuff.”
Prosecuting Evil, which is currently streaming on Netflix, was greeted with widespread acclaim following its premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival and its theatrical release on Feb. 22 of this year, and it currently stands at 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.
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Born to Orthodox Jewish farmers in Transylvania, Ferencz, at just nine months of age, was brought to America by his parents aboard a ship, passing the torch of the Statue of Liberty. (“That light, I’m afraid, has gone out, and I very much regret it,” he says in reference to the Trump administration’s attitudes towards today’s immigrants.) He grew up in poverty and around crime, but studied hard and gained admittance to City College of New York and then Harvard Law School, where he decided to pursue a career in crime prevention and studied with one of the world’s leading experts on what we now call war crimes, Prof. Sheldon Gluck. After graduating and passing the bar, he entered the U.S. Army in 1943, starting in artillery and then moving to the judge advocate’s section of Gen. George S. Patton’s army. One of Ferencz’s most gut-wrenching assignments during his time in the service was to witness the liberation of numerous concentration camps and seize evidence for future war crimes trials against Nazis. “Anybody who says it didn’t happen,” he says in regard to Holocaust deniers, “they won’t say that didn’t happen to me.”
After Ferencz’s honorable discharge on Christmas 1945, he returned stateside — only to be summoned to Washington and recruited to assist in Nuremberg, where, in addition to international military tribunal trials, there were 12 additional trials against people from other segments of Nazi Germany’s society. There originally were to be only 11 additional trials, but Ferencz fought for — and was empowered to serve as chief prosecutor at — a twelfth, the Einsatzgruppen trial, which weighed the behavior of 24 defendants who were alleged to have served as commanders in SS mobile death squads. Ferencz, at just 27 and standing at just 5-foot-2, delivered his opening statement while standing on a pile of books. “I didn’t recommend a death sentence for anybody,” he reminds. “I asked the court to affirm, as a matter of criminal law, the right of every human being to live in peace and human dignity, regardless of his race or creed. I said if I could get that, that would be a step forward — and that if these men be acquitted, then law has lost its meaning and man must live in fear. That stuck with the judges, and they gave me that judgment” — indeed, 22 defendants were found guilty on three out of three counts, and the other two were found guilty on one out of three counts — “and, of course, it’s been cited a thousand times since then.'”
Ferencz spent the rest of his career as a highly respected and successful lawyer. He was instrumental in the creation of the International Criminal Court in the Hague in 2002. And he continues to write and speak about war crimes to this day, just months shy of his 100th birthday. What’s his secret? “There is no secret,” he insists with a chuckle. “I’ve lived a wholesome life. This morning I did my usual 75 pushups, among other things. I used to do 100, but they told me to slow down. I don’t drink. I don’t smoke.” He continues, “But what really drives me, if I want to confess my weaknesses, is the trauma. I had a discussion with God, at one point. I’d been to several of the camps, and it was really quite horrible. And I said, ‘God, how did you let this happen? How did it happen? Where are you still? And it’s still happening. I’m still waiting for an answer.’ But I didn’t wait for an answer. I said, ‘Benny, try to change it.’ And so I’ve spent my life trying to change it.”
While Ferencz feels that much progress has been made in the 75 years since World War II, he is far from satisfied. “Hitler’s happening again and again all around the world,” he laments. “I can look in the White House and pick a few out for you. John Bolton [until recently President Trump’s National Security Advisor] is not a far cry from Hitler.” Ferencz feels particularly strongly about the Trump administration’s separation of parents and child at the southern border. “That’s a crime against humanity,” he says, noting, with regard to Trump, “I would welcome them putting him on trial.” Would he himself like to again serve as a prosecutor at such a trial? “The ball is now passing to younger hands,” Ferencz demurs. “I have three pieces of advice: One, never give up; two, never give up; and three, never give up. The ball is yours. Never give up, kids.”
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