Benjamin Ferencz, the now ninety-nine-year-old Harvard law school graduate and sole surviving prosecutor of the Nuremberg trials, has bequeathed his testimony to us. In Parting Words: 9 Lessons for a Remarkable Life,Ferencz constructs a clear framework toward building an ethical, moral life infused with gratitude, integrity, and unwavering courage.
Nadia Khomami, a former reporter, now news editor for the Guardian in London, saw Ferencz quite by chance in a TV interview. After contacting him and writing a well-received story about his life’s work, their conversations flourished into a friendship that spanned time zones and decades. After considerable coaxing, Ferencz agreed to distill his life lessons into readily accessible and plain-spoken prose. The sparse, direct language of this memoir belies the complexities of the personal and professional challenges that he fearlessly met and overcame throughout his life.
Ferenencz’s family immigrated from Transylvania to the United States when he was a baby. Hell’s Kitchen in the winter of 1920 was not particularly welcoming to Ben’s father, who was blind in one eye and spoke only Romanian, Hungarian and Yiddish. Ferencz’s parents neither owned nor read any books, and Ben spent as much of his time outdoors, where he soon realized that his friends were as poor as he was. Especially when the local police were patrolling for petty shoplifting, individual morals were essential.
Ben questioned everything. That moral compass caused more than a few notations for insubordination during his army years. But his insistence on ethics, human dignity, and justice drove him to prosecute Nazi war criminals accused of genocide at the age of twenty-seven, help establish an entire legal field dedicated to genocide and war crimes, and create the International Criminal Court.
Recognition as a gifted student qualified him for a public high school that guaranteed admission to City College. Excelling in sociology and social science, he applied to Harvard law school. While there, Ben learned to use adversity in his favor. Standing barely above five feet, the victim of repeated bullying, Ben focused on outshining his competition. He was undaunted by his professors’ prodding and realized that fear is as only negative as one allows it to be. By the end of his first semester, he merited a full law school scholarship.
Living in an attic room that he shared with another student, he sustained himself through the fifty-cent buffet at a local hotel. Working as a busboy in a nearby divinity school allowed him to partake of leftovers. Returning to that school in 2016 to meet the dean, Ferencz handed him a check for fifty thousand dollars. Explaining how grateful he was for the leftover cafeteria food that helped him decades earlier, Ferencz declared that there is no statute of limitations on gratitude.
After World War II, he made repeated visits to ten death camps to examine the evidence of war crimes. Despite the utter depravity that he saw, his core belief in the strength and dignity of people remained unwavering. Never did he attend the execution of the criminals he prosecuted, and only once did he visit one of the commanders on death row.
While establishing the International Criminal Court has been arduous – and Ferencz believes that war crimes occur almost daily around the world – the fruition of his endeavors energizes him. Benjamin Ferencz is an avowed believer in human dignity and will continue working to build a society that reflects this conviction so long as he is able. It is then up to us to hold our fellow citizens and leadership morally accountable in order to create a world that is civil and just.
Ferencz’s book speaks to everyone who dares to hope, to dream, to choose and to live. When optimism and inspiration are in short supply, Parting Words empowers us to turn darker moments into opportunities. Having lived a century is merely a fact for Ferencz. He has no intention of leaving the world stage; no doubt he still has many parting words to offer.
Rabbi Reba Carmel is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Jewish Currents and The Jewish Literary Journal and other publications. Rabbi Carmel is a trained Interfaith Facilitator and has participated in multiple Interfaith panels across the Delaware Region. She is currently in the Leadership Training Program at the Interfaith Center of Philadelphia.