Parting Words: 9 Lessons for a Remarkable Life by Benjamin Ferencz

Ben Ferencz landed on the beaches of Normandy, broke through the Maginot and Siegfried lines, took part in the Battle of the Bulge and served in the headquarters of General Patton’s Third Army. He received five battle stars from the Pentagon and was on the scene during the liberation of Buchenwald and Mauthausen.

He was chief prosecutor of the SS death squads at Nuremberg, pulled dead bodies out of the mud with his hands, jumped out of a plane that was about to crash, made millions of dollars as a lawyer, became a famous human rights campaigner and philanthropist, summed up the prosecution argument in the first case before the International Criminal Court, married his teenage sweetheart and stayed married to her for more than 70 years, and is still alive at 100 years of age.

You would therefore expect his life story to be riveting, and it is. Nadia Khomami, the journalist who persuaded Ferencz to turn his tales into a book and then conducted and transcribed the interviews, has done a service to history and to readers who enjoy a good yarn. Ferencz never takes himself too seriously and Khomami has a lively style. Together they have made an engaging book.

Indeed, my most serious criticism of Parting Words is one I hardly ever make about any reading material. It is too short. There wasn’t one anecdote or episode that didn’t make you wish to hear more about it, to understand it better, to learn what happened next.

Judgment Day

The high point of this memoir is Ferencz’s recollection of what he correctly describes as “the biggest murder trial in human history”. After the famous military tribunal at Nuremberg there were a series of trials of specific groups — doctors, lawyers, industrialists and so forth — and Ferencz found himself assigned to the prosecution team because he had gained expertise in war crimes.

He was insistent that among the groups put on trial should be leading members of the Einsatzgruppen, the gangs who roamed Nazi-occupied Europe killing innocent men, women and children. And he was granted his wish, provided that he agreed to be chief prosecutor.

That is how he ended up facing 22 mass murderers in court at the age of 27. It was his first case. And he was facing people who he knew would have shot him, a Jew, without a second thought. He was not, however, nervous. “I was indignant. I didn’t kill anybody — they did, and they knew I could prove it. I rested the prosecution’s case in two days. I had all I had to say. ‘Are you this guy? Is this your signature? Then you’re damn lying.’ ”

He ended up feeling a rather odd emotion about the lead defendant, SS General Otto Ohlendorf. On hearing the sentence of death passed upon Ohlendorf, Ferencz was shocked and then he said: “I felt sorry for him, to tell the truth.” He was struck that war made monsters out of ordinary people. Ohlendorf, he thought, was rational, a family man, but one who had managed to persuade himself that evil doctrines were correct.

At Nuremberg, Ferencz was facing people who he knew would have shot him, a Jew, without a second thought.

Ferencz took the unusual step of visiting the general after the verdict to see whether there was any small favor he could do for him. Send a message to his family, perhaps. Ohlendorf simply began repeating the arguments for his actions (that he was keeping out the communists) that he had made during his trial. Ferencz gently said, “Goodbye, Mr Ohlendorf,” and slammed the door in his face.

This combination of dynamism, humanity and a strong view about the difference between right and wrong powers Ferencz’s career and this book. While others, for instance, might be nostalgic about their days prosecuting war criminals, Ferencz spent years harrying and pestering until the International Criminal Court was created in 1998. His role in its founding was recognized when he was asked to make the closing remarks in the first prosecution, that of the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo.

Ferencz gently said, “Goodbye, Mr Ohlendorf [a lead SS defendant],” and slammed the door in his face.

Ferencz deals remarkably calmly with the various crises of his life, whether it is advancing in war under fire, the extraordinary incident where he and his wife are forced to parachute out of a plane, or his rise to affluence from the poverty and family dysfunction of his youth.

And from all of this he has undoubtedly gained wisdom and demonstrated the advantages of it. The decision to make this book a collection of advice generated by a life well lived was understandable and a neat literary device. I’m not sure, however, that it entirely works.

Most of Ferencz’s advice is sound, but hardly surprising or original. “Don’t reject the situation in front of you because it isn’t perfect, or your dream; try your hardest, do your best, and you might find it is more rewarding than you first thought” is a sample. “Be understanding and supportive of the obligations of your partner” is another. There is a complete description of his 20 minutes of daily exercise (he exhales 25 times, for instance).

There is an outside chance that, tethered to the stories of his extraordinary life, and considering his longevity, Parting Words might become a minor classic of advice given to young people who haven’t yet worked out that “never give up” is an attitude that can see you through. It is more likely, however, that it will just seem obvious.

It represents two missed opportunities. The first is for more profound reflections on the ethics of Nuremberg and war. At one point, for instance, he says that “you cannot kill an ideology with a gun”. This was not completely true, as it turned out, with National Socialism. Another time he says that “you cannot solve your problems by killing innocent people”. The Soviet Union certainly solved a fair number of its problems doing that and it would have been interesting to hear Ferencz’s views on the ethics of that.

Yet the most important missed opportunity is that every sentence spent on advice is one not spent on the fabulous stories that made this a great read. And it is short enough as it is.