BOCA RATON – Benjamin Ferencz says the world still has not learned the lesson he helped lay out 75 years ago during the Nuremberg war crimes trials of Nazi officials that followed World War II.
“My hope was that we could create a more humane and peaceful world where no one would be killed or persecuted because of his race or religion or political belief,” said Ferencz, who is 102 and is the last surviving prosecutor from the Nuremberg trials, which were held in Germany from 1945 to 1949.
But in late February came the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“We see it still happening today, people running with their infant children, hospitals being bombed, and we have not yet learned the lesson from Nuremberg despite the fact that we laid it out clear and unmistakable,” said Ferencz, who lives in Delray Beach .
On Thursday, Ferencz received the Governor’s Medal of Freedom from Gov. Ron DeSantis in a ceremony at Florida Atlantic University. DeSantis also used the occasion to sign a bill making the Governor’s Medal a permanent part of Florida law.
Ferencz used his acceptance speech as an opportunity to comment on the Russia-Ukraine war.
“I’m trying to change the way people think about war,” he said. “If they do not think about it, their heart will not change, either. So you have to think about it, and ask yourself, ‘Is this the way for human beings to behave?’ ”
Last month, he told London’s Daily Mirror that he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin can and should be jailed for war crimes.
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Ferencz told the small crowd at FAU that if the world’s war trends continue, humankind will not survive. He urged the younger generation to fight for laws instead of wars.
“We have got to learn to detest settling your disputes by killing a bunch of people that have nothing to do with it,” he said. “It’s up to the new generation.”
Born in Hungary in 1920, he came to the United States before his first birthday, settling in New York. He studied at the City College of New York, then Harvard Law School, where he earned his degree in 1943.
With World War II, he joined the Army, and in 1945 helped set up war crimes investigations for Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army. He was called back into service after being discharged in late 1945 to handle prosecutions of suspected Nazi war criminals.
Ferencz was 27 when he argued during the so-called Einsatzgruppen Trial in 1947 for the convictions of 22 Nazi defendants for war crimes, crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and conspiracy to commit any of the foregoing crimes. All were convicted, and 13 were sentenced to death.
“[It was] the biggest murder trial in human history and it was my first case, ”he said.
Ferencz, a father of four, pushed in a 1975 book for the creation of what became, in 1998, the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands. That followed years of pursuing the creation of anti-war legislation. He has been honored for his efforts with France’s Legion of Honor award, Germany’s military medal of honor and Holland’s Erasmus Prize.
Before receiving a standing ovation, Ferencz left the crowd at FAU with two reminders: “law, not war” and “never give up.”