Part­ing Words: 9 Lessons for a Remark­able Life

Ben­jamin Ferencz

  • Review
By – January 3, 2022

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. 

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