Yesterday marked the 77th anniversary of the beginning of the NAZI’s clearing of the Warsaw Ghetto known as the Great Deportation. This summer is also the 100th anniversary of the Red Summer of 1919 that saw over 200 African Americans killed in what are still incorrectly referred to as race riots instead of targeted acts of terrorism by white Americans against African Americans. The Great Deportation lasted all summer. Between July 22 and September 21, 1942 more than 250,000 Jews were removed from the Warsaw Ghetto, sent to Treblinka, and exterminated.
The acts of terrorism, as well as the acts of self defense by African Americans, during the Red Summer of 1919, didn’t all start on the same day or in the same place during the summer of 1919. For instance, the riots in Chicago started on July 29th and were precipitated by the raft of 17 year old, let me repeat that 17 YEAR OLD, Eugene Williams drifting past the color line separating the white from the African American areas of Lake Michigan and its shore. The raft drifted across the line because Eugene Williams had drowned. The violence in Chicago lasted for about a week leaving 38 people dead, 23 African Americans and 15 whites, and over 500 were injured and/or left homeless due to fires set to specifically drive African Americans out of their homes. Washington, DC’s Red Summer began about two weeks after the 4th of July celebrations. On July 18th two African American men were accused of bumping into a 19 year old white woman and trying to steal her umbrella as she walked home. Despite a quick arrest, the story was told and retold, embellished at every retelling, until DC also boiled over in racist violence. Similar incidents and similar responses occurred in other cities across the United States.
The geographically and temporally distinct events of The Great Deportation and the Red Summer, driven by different forms of racism, during the summers of 1919 and 1942, are just two examples of why it is important to pay attention when someone like Ben Ferencz has something to tell all of us. Ferencz, who is 99, is the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor alive as he was also the youngest one. 60 Minutes interviewed him in June and he has some hard won wisdom he wishes to pass on to us.
Lesley Stahl: Did you meet a lot of people who perpetrated war crimes who would otherwise in your opinion have been just a normal, upstanding citizen?
Benjamin Ferencz: Of course, is my answer. These men would never have been murderers had it not been for the war. These were people who could quote Goethe, who loved Wagner, who were polite–
Lesley Stahl: What turns a man into a savage beast like that?
Benjamin Ferencz: He’s not a savage. He’s an intelligent, patriotic human being.
Lesley Stahl: He’s a savage when he does the murder though.
Benjamin Ferencz: No. He’s a patriotic human being acting in the interest of his country, in his mind.
Lesley Stahl: You don’t think they turn into savages even for the act?
Benjamin Ferencz: Do you think the man who dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima was a savage? Now I will tell you something very profound, which I have learned after many years. War makes murderers out of otherwise decent people. All wars, and all decent people.
Lesley Stahl: Now, you’ve been at this for 50 years, if not more. We’ve had genocide since then.
Benjamin Ferencz: Yes.
Lesley Stahl: In Cambodia—
Benjamin Ferencz: Going on right this minute, yes.
Lesley Stahl: Going on right this minute in Sudan.
Benjamin Ferencz: Yes.
Lesley Stahl: We’ve had Rwanda, we’ve had Bosnia. You’re not getting very far.
Benjamin Ferencz: Well, don’t say that. People get discouraged. They should remember, from me, it takes courage not to be discouraged.
Lesley Stahl: Did anybody ever say that you’re naive?
Benjamin Ferencz: Of course. Some people say I’m crazy.
Lesley Stahl: Are you naive here?
Benjamin Ferencz: Well, if it’s naive to want peace instead of war, let ’em make sure they say I’m naive. Because I want peace instead of war. If they tell me they want war instead of peace, I don’t say they’re naive, I say they’re stupid. Stupid to an incredible degree to send young people out to kill other young people they don’t even know, who never did anybody any harm, never harmed them. That is the current system. I am naive? That’s insane.
Ferencz is legendary in the world of international law, and he’s still at it. He never stops pushing his message and he’s donating his life savings to a Genocide Prevention Initiative at the Holocaust Museum. He says he’s grateful for the life he’s lived in this country, and it’s his turn to give back.
Lesley Stahl: You are such an idealist.
Benjamin Ferencz: I don’t think I’m an idealist. I’m a realist. And I see the progress. The progress has been remarkable. Look at the emancipation of woman in my lifetime. You’re sitting here as a female. Look what’s happened to the same-sex marriages. To tell somebody a man can become a woman, a woman can become a man, and a man can marry a man, they would have said, “You’re crazy.” But it’s a reality today. So the world is changing. And you shouldn’t– you know– be despairing because it’s never happened before. Nothing new ever happened before.
Lesley Stahl: Ben—
Benjamin Ferencz: We’re on a roll.
Lesley Stahl: I can’t—
Benjamin Ferencz: We’re marching forward.
Lesley Stahl: Ben? I’m sitting here listening to you. And you’re very wise. And you’re full of energy and passion. And I can’t believe you’re 97 years old.
Benjamin Ferencz: Well, I’m still a young man.
Lesley Stahl: Clearly, clearly.
Benjamin Ferencz: And I’m still in there fighting. And you know what keeps me going? I know I’m right.
It is important to pay attention to the men and women like Ben Ferencz while we still have them with us. As they pass away we lose our living memory of the NAZIs, as well as other fascists and authoritarians and their crimes against humanity. Those living memories, the recollections of the men and women like Ferencz who fought the NAZIs or the Italian fascists or the Spanish fascists or other authoritarians and totalitarians, as well as those who have worked diligently and tirelessly to hold them to account and get justice for their victims are societal and political antibodies. They help us fight off attempts to revive these noxious, dangerous, and illiberal ideologies and their deadly effects. Ben Ferencz and those like him, by their very existence as living testimonies and testaments to remind us of what happens when fascism in general and racist fascism like NAZIism in specific is allowed to grow and spread unchecked. It is important that we pay attention to what Ben Ferenzc is trying to still teach us so that we do not have to relearn the terrible lessons he is trying to impart to us the hard way.
Here are some videos of Ben Ferencz still trying to teach us the lessons that he and his colleagues had to learn the hard way during World War II.