Let me introduce you to two remarkable men, Canadian film producer, Barry Avrich, and Romanian born Ben Ferencz, investigator of Nazi war crimes, Chief Prosecutor for the United States Army at a trial in Nuremberg, and advocate of the establishment of an international rule of law and of an International Criminal Court.
If you happened to watch an interview on Sixty Minutes last year, you will have met Ben Ferencz. That is how he came to the attention of Avrich. His family was watching the program and they called out to him, “You have to come and see this man.” Intrigued, as everyone who meets or hears Ferencz is, Avrich did some research and was surprised to see that although there were media interviews here and there, particularly in legal circles. no one had gathered together the account of his inspiring life. He set out to correct that and the result is Prosecuting Evil, a documentary that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival a few weeks ago.
I was privileged to see it at its American Premiere at Temple Emanu_El in New York City. This is an important film, important at any time in our history but even more so now when we find ourselves in this frightening time, when bigotry, intolerance, hate, every kind of evil, has been given license to thrive.
Ben Ferencz is now 99 years old and a great advertisement for aging. The man has all his intelligence, his wit, his humor, and energy. I fell a little bit in love with him which won’t do me the slightest bit of good as he has been happily married to the same woman for 72 years. As I heard him describe his first exposure to the concentration camps and then his role as the prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen Case, I was impressed by his ability to separate emotion from reason.
His description of the camps is vivid – from the emaciated survivors to the bone filled ovens and the stench over all. But, when it came to prosecuting the 22 men he put on trial, he insisted that it was not vengeance or revenge that would bring the men to justice, but the facts. And he had the facts, for the Germans had carefully recorded in a notebook their forays into towns and villages, scrupulously noting how many Jews they had killed each day. All of those men were found guilty, 13 received death sentences of which four were carried out.
In the documentary, Ferencz focuses on one of the Germans, pointing out that he was a cultured, educated man, a good husband, good father, good neighbor. “Except”, he says “he killed thousands of Jews.” What made him cross that line? There is no doubt in Ferencz voice. “War”, he says “War makes murderers of us all.”
It is for that reason that he has been an ardent advocate of an international court which, he believes ,used properly, could help the world avoid wars.
Ben Ferencz’ family fled pogroms in Romania and emigrated to the United States where they settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a crowded, ghetto-like home to many immigrants. There was little money, but education was valued. A teacher recognized his abilities and encouraged him to enroll at City College of New York where he won a scholarship to Harvard. He enlisted in the Army and served in an anti-aircraft artillery unit. In 1945, he was assigned to the team that collected evidence for war crimes. After leaving the army, he was asked to return to Germany, to join the prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials. Following that, he helped secure reparation for the Nazis’ victims, and played an important part in negotiations that led to the historic Reparation Agreement between Israel and Germany.
Returning to New York in 1956, he entered private practice and then joined the movement to establish an International Criminal Court to deal with crimes against humanity and war crimes. He remains disappointed that although the USA signed the treaty it did not ratify it. He has not hesitated to criticize many of the actions of the United States, from its role in Vietnam to the Iraq war, Trump policies, and the current political climate.
He is a serious man who is full of joy. Despite all that he has seen of evil, he and his wife raised four children. That is surely the definition of hope. And instead of giving into despair, he espouses a route to change the future for the better. That is also the definition of hope.
I urge everyone to make it a point to see this film and stress that its importance goes beyond the obvious relationship to the Jewish community. Over the next few weeks and months, it will be available in many cities in Canada and The United States. In Toronto it will be shown on November 11th, in a special benefit for the survivors of the holocaust who are living in poverty. The event will take place at the Ted Rogers Hot Doc Theater.