Ben Ferencz turned 101 years old on March 12, 2021. Ben Ferencz is the last living prosecutor from the Nuremberg War Trials of which there were 13. The first was the International Military Tribunal in which four great nations salved their wounds and, in the greatest instance in history of power giving way to reason, subdued their anger and gave the leading Nazis a trial, a judgement and a sentence if they were found guilty. And at the first trial, 3 were not. That Ben remembered, and acted on his memory was the most significant part of his career and life.
I’m one of just three persons that sat at the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, New York to hear the prosecutors and their colleagues - those that were remaining alive - tell about many things about Nuremberg. Jackson was the chief US prosecutor at the first trial from November 1945 to the day of the judgement, October 1, 1946.
Ferencz was at the 6th Nuremberg trial, the trial of the I. G. Farben executives (the chemist’s trial) and he was the lead prosecutor at the 8th trial; the trial of the einsatzgruppen. These were the special forces troops (SS they were called by the Nazis) who followed German armies through Poland and east executing innocent civilians because of their religion (the Jews) or for other reasons none too specific. There were 12 subsequent Nuremberg trials under the auspices of the US Army. These were the trials that discovered the doctors that took captured civilians held in camps and experimented on them ‘for medical reasons’. Trial number 8 was the einsatzgruppen trial - Ferencz told us one day that he began counting the number of dead attributed to these SS troops that followed the Army, and when he got to 1,000,000 dead went to the general In charge of the subsequent trials, General Telford Taylor, and told him about it. Taylor said ‘if you can make the case, go ahead and set up a trial of the leaders’. He did this to hear testimony so bizarre that it escapes human recognition. (save some of the excuses for January 6’s attack on the US Capital came close.)
Why do I know these things? Mostly because in various experiences at the Robert H. Jackson Center, I heard those that experience them tell others about them. From their memory, I learned. And their memories, in some ways, became part of mine.
Memory is a funny thing. I remember a lot about the fall of my junior year in high school - hurricanes, football games, fumbles, touchdowns, but this was the fall when Bob Jackson died too - and though my grandfather was alive and was a Jackson client early in his career, he didn’t mention it in my presence or if he did I don’t remember it. Had I been more aware of that which was going on around me that was really significant, I would have asked questions about it and remembered it. But I was more interested in fumbles and touchdowns on a team that could only muster six men at a time. So I remember the marginalia of life and not that real story.
The Nuremberg prosecutors, however, are different. They remember everything because they lived it. In Ferencz’s case, he spent his early professional life trying to get reparations for the families of those that died in the concentration camps of WWII. Another victim of the Nazi atrocities that I met and knew, Ernest Michel, spent the rest of his life - after escaping from Auschwitz in 1945 - raising money for the United Jewish Appeal. Ernie’s story was so compelling that no one could hear it and not be completely awestruck by what he lived through. Why do we know about it? Because he remembered it and told us. His sister, he also told us, would never talk about her experiences again. Had we queried his sister, and not him, we would have known nothing too. HIs memory etched historical episodes for others to learn from,
In some fields, like my real field - organic chemistry - memory of the literature is what distinguishes Nobel laureates from the rest. He/she that remembers the most was most likely to do the next critical experiment. And I’d guess that constitutional law is another such field - the lawyer that can find the most critical precedents will likely make the more long-lasting contributions.
But why do I remember the marginalia in 1954 but not the main theme of the book? Because to me at that time it was the thing in the margin that I was really interested in. As a boy I was happy just playing some games. Later in life I wish I had read the whole chapter.
As we move farther and farther away from incidents, horrible and pleasant, it is really important for many - not just a few - to remember them. January 6, 2021 is an incident that should be etched in everyone’s memory - and the decent in America need to prevail so that nothing like it happens ever again. That’s what the trials at Nuremberg did for humankind. They etched the horrible memories of the Holocaust in humankind forever - so that collectively they would never forget. If America is going to survive, we must etch the memories of January in our collected conscience so that nothing like it happens ever again.