I am a true baby boomer, one of the millions of children born in the immediate aftermath of World War II. I grew up in a time when stories of that horrific conflict were less like history and more akin to the kind of vivid recollections that parents recount from their own lives. The people who taught me about what happened there had endured the hardships, but all of their memories paled in comparison to those of the Jews and outcasts who were caught up in the murderous horror of the Holocaust. From the very personal diary entries of Anne Frank to the images of the camps that I saw in grainy black and white detail, I grew up wondering how the moral degeneration that overtook so many Germans can overtake ordinary humans. I have been haunted by concerns of man’s inhumanity to those different from themselves that seems to be repeated a common theme in the long story of mankind. Nonetheless I remain optimistically hopeful that quite slowly we humans are inching toward more and more acceptance and protection of the rights of each person.
Recently I came across the story of a quite interesting individual whose biography and philosophy give me great expectations. His name is Ben Ferencz, and he is the last living prosecutor of war crimes at Nuremberg. At ninety eight years old he is still quite outspoken in his belief that wars have the capacity to bring out some of the worst possible instincts in people, causing ordinary souls who might otherwise have offered goodness to the world to evolve into monsters. His solution to this problem is to work as hard as possible to prevent and perhaps one day eradicate war entirely.
Mr. Ferencz is an interesting character who has lately been featured on the CBS Sunday evening program Sixty Minutes and in a Netflix documentary, Prosecuting Evil. He is now ninety eight years old, born in what was once Hungary and now is Romania. His parents managed to immigrate to the United States in 1919, traveling to New York City on a steamer ship much like the ones that brought my own grandparents to Galveston, Texas in that same decade. He recounted the hardships of being a third class passenger sleeping on the deck in all kinds of weather. Once he and his family reached America things did little to improve. Their lives were difficult and they felt very alone, but much like my grandparents they always believed that as bad as things were here, they were infinitely better than the conditions that they had left.
Mr. Ferencz had a special teacher in high school who recognized his giftedness and encouraged him to attend college, something that neither he nor anyone in his family had ever thought to do. Eventually he earned a law degree at Harvard University where he duly noted how out of place he felt among his well dressed wealthier classmates. Nonetheless he forged an alliance with one of his professors who was engaged in research into war crimes and human rights. That connection ultimately led him to Nuremberg at the age of twenty seven.
Ben Ferencz is a small man who had to stand on a pile of books to be seen over the podium from which he would prosecute the war criminals. He had no experience inside a courtroom, and yet the images of Auschwitz that he had experienced from a visit propelled him to find justice for the millions who had been murdered. Thanks to the meticulous record keeping that the Nazis used to keep track of the slaughter, he had more than enough evidence to convict.
Mr. Ferencz described how he and the others who tried German citizens for their crimes had purposely selected people like doctors, lawyers, formerly respected businessmen as their defendants to emphasize the diabolical nature of what had taken place. He noted that each of the men had been highly educated and seemingly on the road to exemplary careers until the machinery of war and propaganda had warped their sense of right and wrong to the point of turning them into unthinking monsters. He was particularly surprised that none of them were ever willing to express sorrow for what they had done, instead insisting that they were attempting to prevent an even greater danger from overtaking the world. To this day it is difficult for Ferencz to speak of the horrors that he uncovered or the degradation of the character of people should have known better.
Mr. Ferencz continued to work for the rights of all people throughout his long career. He built a good life for himself in America along with his wife of many decades who is also ninety eight. His children say that they grew up with a question that their father asked them regularly, “What have you done for humanity today?” It has been his life’s compass, guiding him to the conclusion that our ultimate goal should be to one day find a way to eradicate wars forever. It’s a tall order but we might begin by doing something for mankind one day at a time, one person at a time. If enough of us begin that process perhaps a tidal wave of goodness may one day overtake the world.