Nuremberg prosecutor and Lemkin Medal recipient Benjamin Ferencz dies at 103

Apr 12, 2023Latest News

Benjamin B. Ferencz, the last surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials and the inaugural recipient of the Bolch Judicial Institute’s Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal, died on Friday, April 7, 2023, at the age of 103.

[Pictured Above: Benjamin Ferencz at the podium during the Einsatzgruppen Case, 1947. Learn more at]

Ferencz was born in 1920 in Transylvania (then part of Hungary, now a region in Romania). When he was 10 months old, his family moved to New York City to escape religious persecution. He became deeply interested in issues of peace and justice at a young age and studied crime prevention at City College of New York. After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1943, he joined the U.S. Army and was assigned to the 115th AAA Gun Battalion, an anti-aircraft artillery unit that fought in many of the major campaigns in Europe. Then, as part of a newly created War Crimes branch, he assisted in collecting evidence for the prosecution of such crimes and visited several concentration camps, an experience he later described as having “peered into Hell.”

After he was honorably discharged from the Army in 1945, he was recruited to assist in the Nuremberg Trials, prosecuting war crimes perpetrated by the Nazis. He became chief prosecutor for the United States in the Einsatzgruppen Case, which the Associated Press described as “the biggest murder trial in history.” Twenty-two defendants were charged with the murder of more than one million people; all were convicted and 13 were sentenced to death. Ferencz returned to the United States in the 1950s. “For the rest of his life,” writes Professor John Q. Barrett of St. John’s University on his blog The Jackson List, “Ben was a lawyer for Holocaust survivors, a law teacher, a writer, a lecturer around the world, a lobbyist for and a builder of international legal institutions, a force for world progress toward peace through law, and a moral exemplar to millions.”

In a 2020 interview hosted by the Bolch Judicial Institute as part of the Lemkin Medal program, Michael P. Scarf, co-dean of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, asked Ferencz why he spent most of his life advocating for modern international courts to be able to prosecute the crime of waging an aggressive war. Ferencz replied that war crimes would only end when wars end.

“The stupidest thing we can do is to go to war — to settle or try to settle our disputes by the use of armed force,” he said. “It’s the stupidest thing, first of all, because we have nuclear weapons. And now, even those are obsolete — we have cyberspace. There are many nations today — the United States, we are the proudest, the strongest, the best — that can kill everybody. And we’re still talking about using armed force? Are you crazy?”

About the Rachel Lemkin Rule of Law Guardian Medal

The Lemkin Medal is awarded by the Bolch Judicial Institute of Duke Law to individuals who have helped to protect and advance the rule of law. It is named for Raphael Lemkin, a leading scholar of 20th-century human rights law who developed both the term and the concept of genocide. Lemkin and Ferencz were close friends, and Ferencz even quoted “genocide” in his opening statement at Nuremberg in tribute to Lemkin. Lemkin fled Europe during World War II and later joined the Duke Law faculty. He was an eminent scholar of war crimes and secured passage of the Genocide Convention at the United Nations. Click here to learn more about the Lemkin Medal