It takes more votes from Congress to award a Congressional Gold Medal than it does to impeach and convict a sitting president. But, in a time of rising antisemitism and Holocaust denial, the last surviving prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials received the prestigious honor on Thursday.
A ceremony was held on Thursday for Ben Ferencz, the legendary Nuremberg trials lawyer. His son accepted the medal on behalf of his 102-year-old father, who is bedridden. The presentation, held in Ferencz’s hometown of Delray Beach, Florida, was attended by neighbors, advocates and Jewish community leaders. The American Jewish Committee and Anti-Defamation League were represented, along with Holocaust survivors.
U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), who shepherded the effort to award Ferencz through Congress, was in attendance, as well.
The Congressional Gold Medal is the legislature’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. Two-thirds of the House and two-thirds of the Senate are required to sponsor a potential recipient before a resolution will be considered in the relevant congressional committees. Only around 175 medals have been bestowed, beginning with the one the Continental Congress awarded to General George Washington on March 25, 1776.
Frankel told JNS that a Jewish organization approached her with the idea for a Congressional Gold Medal for Ferencz.
“Oh, this is going to be easy,” she said she thought.
She ended up partnering with Democratic Rep. Kathy Manning of North Carolina and Republican Rep Joe Wilson of South Carolina to push the bill through the House, while Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York led the effort on the other side of the Capitol.
“I spoke to a lot of Democrats and Republicans getting them to sign on to the bill. I think it was a combination of factors that got it done, including the greatness of Ben Ferencz and his achievements.”
Frankel said that given the troubling circumstances of the day, she feels Congress as a whole wanted to send a message to the American public.
“The rise of antisemitism in the world—that hatred—I believe was what motivated these congressmen and senators to get on board, to send a message from the highest, most powerful governmental body in the world,” Frankel said. “The message that antisemitism and hatred is wrong, and that the Holocaust was real, is an important message.”
Frankel told JNS that upon informing Ferencz she was going to file a bill seeking the award for him, “He was very gracious. For him, it’s never been about him. I think it’s important to him that what he stood for lives past him. His message will live on in many ways.”
Ferencz, the son of Jewish Hungarian immigrants, was only 27 when he served as the chief prosecutor for the United States in the Einsatzgruppen case, which in 1947-48 prosecuted and convicted 22 Nazi officials responsible for the estimated murder of 1.3 million Jews. He had enlisted in the army following his crime prevention studies at Harvard University and was serving in an investigative unit that was among the first to reach several liberated concentration camps in order to document evidence of Nazi atrocities.
Shortly following his discharge, Ferencz was recruited to take part in the Nuremberg prosecution, in what would be the first case of his legal career. Later in life, he was key in the formation of the International Criminal Court, which serves as a global high court for issues of crimes against humanity and war crimes. He also fought for compensation for Holocaust survivors.
Frankel said she was blown away after hearing several of the speakers on Thursday.
“What an amazing life. So much in life is just being in the right place at the right time and being the kind of person that takes advantage of your circumstances,” she said. “He obviously [he] had in his DNA this passion for humanity and justice. He was told [during the Nuremberg trials] that they ran out of money and personnel. Ben was persistent.”