A documentary by Barry Avrich. In English and German, with English subtitles. Rated PG
Before the end of the Second World War, there were few set standards for determining evil on an international scale. Banning chemical weapons (including those just tossed across the U.S. border into Mexico) was something participants in the previous war had agreed to, though there was little mechanism to apply pressure to warring nations to abide by rules of engagement regarding civilians.
The Geneva Convention came about in 1949, three years after 27-year-old Harvard Law School grad and former U.S. army private Benjamin Ferencz was tapped by Gen. George Patton to investigate conditions at the newly liberated concentration camps. After that, he helped track down the records of genocide—meticulously kept by the German hierarchy, true to cliché—used to convict first- and second-tier Nazis who orchestrated the Holocaust.
Born in Transylvania, a land of shifting borders and allegiances, he came to the U.S. in 1920, and his family lived in some of the poorest quarters of New York, which gave him a lifelong abhorrence of crime. He learned English on the street and French from Charles Boyer movies, and turned out to be a gifted student. “I didn’t know what that meant,” Ferencz tells director Barry Avrich in this well-above-average documentary. “I mean, nobody ever gave me any gifts.”
The Montreal filmmaker specializes in shooting Shakespeare productions, and Ferencz’s story has all the gravitas of a tragic history play, leavened by incredible humour and good fortune, as radiated by the super-diminutive subject, who had to stand on books to reach the podium as one of the lead prosecutors at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials.
He is now an incredibly busy 99 years old, and lives in an unassuming Florida bungalow with his wife of 72 years. His saga will be familiar to people who’ve read about the fall of the Third Reich. (I have a special attachment to it, since my own father, born three years later, attended Ferencz’s Bronx middle school and his Harlem college. My uncle would later be with the army group that first entered Dachau.)
The procedural and moral aspects of Nuremberg are equally compelling; less known is his role in resettling displaced people after the war, and in the establishment of the International Criminal Court—something he and Robert McNamara, of all people, pushed Bill Clinton to join, only to see George W. Bush blow off its main tenets during his disastrous Iraq adventure.
Although Ferencz radiates gratitude for a life well lived, he has become increasingly outspoken about signs emanating from his current government. “Because,” he says, “I’ve seen it all before.”