It still appalls him after 70 years. Ben Ferencz says the lack of remorse on the blank faces of the Nazis he prosecuted for killing more than a million innocent people is still revolting. The 97-year-old recalls the scene at Nuremberg in vivid detail to Lesley Stahl on the next edition of 60 Minutes Sunday, May 7 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
"Defendants' faces were blank all the time…absolutely blank,…like…they're waiting for a bus," recalls Ferencz. Asked what was going on inside him, Ferencz replies, "I'm still churning," as he tears up. "I'm still churning."
Ferencz was a 24-year-old Army private with a law degree from Harvard who had served in many of the major battles of World War II, when he was transferred into a new Army unit charged with investigating war crimes. He entered several newly liberated concentration camps in search of evidence. After the war, as part of the Nuremberg prosecution team, he came upon a cache of secret Nazi reports documenting the systematic killing of more than a million people, victims massacred by SS troops not in concentration camps, but in the towns and cities where they lived.
"Defendants' faces were blank all the time…absolutely blank,…like…they're waiting for a bus."
"They were 3,000 SS officers trained for the purpose and directed to kill, without pity or remorse, every single Jewish man, woman and child they could lay their hands on," he tells Stahl.
The Nuremberg trials were the first international war crimes tribunals and were already underway when Ferencz presented the newfound evidence to his superiors. They told him the trial schedule was already set and there wasn't enough staff to prosecute another trial. Ferencz persisted; he had the reports outlining in detail the murders he wanted the world to know about. He was told that if he could handle the case in addition to his other work, he himself could do it. He was 27 years old.
Ferencz's trial, of 22 commanders of the SS units called Einsatzgruppen, was trial number nine at Nuremberg. All 22 pled not guilty. "'Nicht Schuldig'…Same thing, not guilty," says Ferencz. But he had their own written reports of the murders they and their men had committed. He didn't even have to call any witnesses. Still the defendants denied their guilt.
"Now, I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people."
One in particular did so in such a flagrant way, Ferencz says, he almost lost his composure in the courtroom. "He gets up and he says, then uttering the words in German before translating, 'What? The Jews were shot? I hear it here for the first time.' Boy, I felt if I'd had a bayonet, I would have jumped over the thing and put a bayonet right through one ear and let it come out the other."
Ferencz went on to become a legend in international law circles and was a passionate advocate for creating the International Criminal Court in The Hague where war crimes are prosecuted. He still speaks out against war and crimes against humanity. As he tells Stahl, "Now, I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people."