Prosecuting Evil (2018) **** Canada Now 2019

April 19th, 2019
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir/Wri.: Barry Avrich; Documentary with Ben Ferencz; Canada 2018, 83 min.

Best known for his Shakespeare adaptations, Barry Avrich turns his camera to his Jewish heritage with this moving portrait of international lawyer Ben Ferencz, who worked tirelessly to bring justice to those who had suffered because of their faith. As prosecutor for the first Nuremberg Trials, and Chief Prosecutor for the Einsatzgruppen Trials after WWII in Germany, Ferencz later worked on the establishment of The International Court of Justice in De Haag in 2007.

Ferencz was born in 1920 in Transylvania, which changed hands between Romania and Hungary during the post-war period. Because of rising Anti-Semitism, his parents emigrated to the USA where he grew up in Hells Kitchen, a poor district of New York. His school grades enabled him to gain scholarships at High School and later Harvard, where he studied law. He was recruited very late into the Army, and was sent to General Patton’s HQ, and later the War Crimes Department. Returning to the USA in his late twenties, he found himself being recruited by Telford Taylor as one of prosecutors for the Nuremberg Trials. Afterwards, Taylor appointed him as a successor to Robert H. Jackson, as Chief Prosecutor for the Einsatzgruppen Trial in 1947/48. 

The Einsatzgruppen were a special SS unit who often worked with the regular German Army to murdering Jews, Roma, and communists – they were basically a group of killers and never encountered armed resistance, murdering only civilians. Otto Ohlendorf, leader of Einsatzgruppe D, which operated in Ukraine and the Crimea, was one of 24 defendants, of whom 13 were sentenced to death.

The defendants were highly educated. One of them, Otto Rasch, leader of Einsatzgruppe C, had a double doctorate. Ohlendorf was an economist and worked with Ludwig Erhardt (later ‘Father of the West German Economic miracle’ and Chancellor in the 1960s) in the SS economic department, planning for the future of National Socialism after the war.

During the trial, he claimed self-defence stating his prosecutors knew nothing about the threat the Soviet Union and Jews posed for Germany. He vowed that Jews would suffer in the US if he and his co-defendants were convicted. Ohlendorf also insisted, “that he would do it all over again, even killing my sister, if I had to.” Ohlendorf, like his boss Heinrich Himmler, saw himself as decent and humanitarian. He told the court about his advice to the Einsatzgruppen when dealing with a mother holding her baby: “Do shoot the baby, this way the mother will also be killed, this is much more human”. Ferencz had to admit that Ohlendorf was quiet a gentleman – apart from being a mass murderer.

Ferencz stayed on in Germany after the Nuremberg Trials and with Kurt May he set up a reparation and rehabilitation programme for victims of the Nazis, later helping to establish the reparation agreement between Israel and Germany, and the German restitution law in 1953. He returned to the USA in 1956, and worked in partnership with Telford Taylor.

But the fight to help and set up an International Court of Justice took him until 2002. Unfortunately, neither the USA, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and most of the Arab countries, are not part of the 120 nations, who have signed up to the genocide laws. Therefore, so Ferencz, at the age of 99 still as busy as ever, fights to convince the international community to sign up, because “War makes mass murderers out of otherwise decent people. And I have seen it again and again.” 

This documentary is the portrait of one of the giants in the history of law, a true humanitarian who helped to pave the way for an international law, which needs more signatories at a time when wars seem to multiply. AS



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