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Ben Ferencz, former Nuremberg trials prosecutor who secured convictions of Nazi death squad commanders, dies at 103

Ferencz was responsible for securing convictions against 22 Nazi death squad commanders in what is called "the biggest murder trial in history."
Benjamin B. Ferencz.
Benjamin B. Ferencz.Brooks Kraft / Getty Images file

Ben Ferencz, a former prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials who secured convictions against 22 Nazi death squad commanders, has died. He was 103.

His son confirmed his death to NBC News.

Ferencz was the last living prosecutor from trials marking the first time in history that mass murderers were prosecuted for war crimes. Ferencz was 27 at the time and later played a crucial role in securing compensation for Holocaust survivors and creating the International Criminal Court at The Hague.

A tireless advocate for human rights, he also wrote nine books and dozens of articles, gave countless speeches and traveled the world into his 90s spreading his motto of "law not war."

"I was damn lucky to live this long," Ferencz told NBC News in November in what was his last media interview. "I hope that I’ve done some good during that lifetime."

Ferencz turned 103 on March 11. A photo posted to his official Twitter page showed him in a wheelchair holding a small piece of paper that read, "Do something you love."

One of Ferencz's friends re-posted the tweet on Saturday, telling people to be "filled with gratitude that we had him, in all his wisdom, for so long."

"My friend and mentor of more than 25 years, the inspirational Ben Ferencz, passed away last night," Dan Skinner tweeted, adding, "RIP, Ben."

Ferencz, born in 1920 to Hungarian Jews, was 10 months old when his family immigrated to the United States and settled in New York City. He grew up poor on the rough and tumble streets of Hell’s Kitchen, where his father worked as a janitor-turned-house painter. 

He attended the City College of New York and earned a scholarship to Harvard Law School. He enlisted in the Army after graduation as World War II engulfed Europe, landing in Normandy and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.

He was later transferred to a unit responsible for gathering evidence of war crimes as the allied forces closed in on the center of the Nazi power in Berlin. Ferencz traveled to multiple concentration camps — Buchenwald, Mauthause, Flossenburg, Ebensee — often within days and sometimes hours of their liberation.

Ferencz said it was "grim as hell" and he "had to refrain from letting it get to me emotionally" so it did not interfere with his job of securing Nazi records before they were destroyed.

"My goal was clear: Grab the documents," he said. "I headed straight to the main office and closed it off. 'Nobody goes in or out without my permission. No German, no American — nobody. I want complete control of the archives,' which I got."

Ferencz and his team collected thousands of documents at the camps and facilities in Berlin, including detailed reports on the Einsatzgruppen, special SS units that roamed Nazi-occupied Europe and killed more than 1 million people.

Those documents were later used to seal the fates of the Nazi death squad commanders during the trial. Fourteen of the 22 who were convicted were sentenced to death. But only four were executed.

After the trial, Ferencz was recruited to lead an effort to return property seized by the Nazis to its owners or their heirs and was called in to help negotiate a reparations agreement with the government of West Germany. It was a fraught and dangerous undertaking but the German government ultimately agreed to compensate Holocaust victims around the world.

Since the agreement was finalized, roughly $90 billion has been distributed to Holocaust survivors, according to the Claims Conference.

Ferencz was also involved in pushing the Germans to agree to maintain cemeteries where Holocaust victims were buried. After spending 10 years in Germany, he relocated his family to the U.S.

Ferencz is survived by his four children. His wife, Gertrude, died in 2019, his website states.