stories 46 - 51
PRACTICING LAW IN NEW YORK
I had graduated from law school in 1943. When I returned to New York in 1956, after having served in World War II and in post-war Germany, I found that practically all of my professional connections to the homeland had been severed. I was just another unemployed lawyer looking for a job. My experience as a war crimes prosecutor and expert in obtaining compensation for impoverished survivors of Nazi persecution did not attract New York law firms. What developed instead was a rather interesting and unique practice.
a melange of vignettes
Story 46: Returning Home to New York in 1956
When, in the spring of 1946, I had accepted the War Department assignment to return to Germany, all I had in mind was to go to Europe for a brief honeymoon. I considered such a vacation to be a just reward for the three years I had endured in “combat”-against the U.S. Army bureaucracy. Ten years later, my wife and I decided that it was time for the family, including our four children born in Nuremberg, to return to the United States. We didn’t want any of our offspring to start school in the land that held so many nightmares.
On one of my frequent trips to report to my Board of Directors in New York, I gave them due notice of my decision to resign from my various positions in Germany. They offered me a slight increase in salary if I remained, but I declined their kind and ungenerous offer. It was too little and too late. They advertised for a replacement at double my salary, but without success. I recommended that Dr. Katzenstein become head of the JRSO, Dr. Schoenfeldt advance to head of the Claims Conference Office, and Dr. May take charge of the URO. Thus, with all three competent men promoted, I was content to begin my search for a new career and a suitable new home. My wife’s only requests were that it be in America, in a house small enough for her to manage without help, and without fear of anti-Semitism. We hoped that our combined life savings might be adequate to meet those modest requirements. I looked forward to finally starting to earn my living as a New York lawyer.
After diligent search, which took into account the rising tensions with the Soviets and the possibility that a nuclear bomb might be dropped in the middle of Central Park, I found a little house in the suburbs. With the help of a low-interest mortgage available to war veterans, I was able to acquire a modest abode, and planned to move my family from 14 Liliencronstrasse, Frankfurt to 14 Bayberry Lane, New Rochelle on the first day of spring 1956. When we sailed into New York harbor on the SS United States, expecting to be greeted by singing birds and sun-drenched flowers, we found the port completely shrouded in 18 inches of snow. God bless America! We were happy to be home.
We spent the night sleeping on my sister’s apartment floor in the Bronx before striking out for New Rochelle where a charitable neighbor had left a shovel in the snow. In due course, we settled in and began to contemplate the possibility of a normal life. As an accommodation to my former employers, and to protect my family from early starvation, I agreed to serve as an advisor to both the Claims Conference and the United Restitution Organization, and to continue to guide them regarding the many ongoing problems I had dealt with in the past. I welcomed their modest retainers and the opportunity to seek more remunerative legal employment elsewhere.
Those Board Members with whom I had worked in Germany, including prominent lawyers and industrialists, who had been so effusive with their praise, seemed to have no use for my private legal talents once I was back in New York. It was the same with some of the large law firms. They wanted to know how many clients I could bring with me. Since I had made up my mind that I would not take any fees from former concentration camp inmates, the attractiveness of my Harvard degree was rather diminished. I was assured, however, that if the big law firms had to prosecute mass murderers or cope with masses of claims for Nazi victims, they would be happy to consult me.
I had gone from law school directly into the army. The decade spent in Germany prosecuting war criminals and then seeking redress for their victims had severed ties to classmates and the legal profession in New York. With limited employment opportunities, I accepted a beginner’s salary with a small law firm that included Jewish organizations among its clients. I occasionally handled a smattering of their unimportant matters, and soon discovered that the practice of law in New York’s lower courts was definitely not to my liking. I found the coarse and greedy clerks and the crowded and unruly dockets to be particularly distasteful. It was, to put it mildly, a very far cry from the lofty ideals taught at Harvard. I decided to strike out on my own and seek new directions.
For a while, I struggled with every case that came along. I handled a few divorce cases but it always pained me to see how love could sometimes turn to hate. Particularly when children were involved, I urged reconciliation or at least a civilized separation. I recommended against getting lawyers involved in the contest if it could be avoided. Exaggerated negligence claims left me cold, and real estate closings were a total bore. I never charged for drawing a will, and gave the original to the client so that he could change it at any time without being bound to return to me for help. I made it clear to any potential client that my legal experience was limited and specialized. My wife suspected that I was trying to frighten away all paying clients. I could have written a play on “How Not to Succeed Without Really Trying.”
My former Chief at Nuremberg, General Telford Taylor, possibly the best lawyer I had ever met, had also discovered when he returned that being away from the United States is not a good way to develop a paying legal clientele. Upon his return from Nuremberg around 1948, he had entered a large prestigious law firm, but after a few years, he left and set up a small office with his brother-in-law, James Landis. Landis, a distinguished public servant, was Dean at the Harvard Law School when I received my diploma there in 1943. I had kept in touch with Taylor over the years, and on my many trips to the United States, had visited with him and his family. When Landis died suddenly around 1964, Taylor invited me to come into the firm. I was happy to accept the desk that Landis had previously occupied.
Taylor was an expert on appellate work. One day, he was requested to file an appeal for a notorious mobster who had been convicted of murder and was out on bail. Taylor was a great authority on constitutional law, but I was the one who had studied criminology. When we consulted about whether the firm should take the case, I cautioned, among other things, that the fee should be paid in advance. Taylor appreciated the advice, particularly when his client was shot dead in a barber’s chair before the appeal could be heard.
Story 47: Creative Approach to Law Practice
A hungry lawyer welcomes every challenge. Although I had resigned from my positions as Director of the different restitution programs in 1956, I could not walk away from some of the issues that had engaged my personal attention for many years. I agreed to remain as Legal Advisor to the URO and the Claims Conference for a modest retainer. It required frequent visits to URO offices abroad, and continuing involvement in resolving difficult problems. It was in that capacity that I became a driving force in the strenuous and long-lasting attempts to obtain compensation from German industrial corporations like IG Farben and Krupp, that had worked concentration camp inmates to death. The details are all contained in my book, Less Than Slaves, which won national prizes as the best book on the Holocaust at that time. After much litigation, I thought the problems had been laid to rest. Since my restitution organizational retainers required me to travel abroad very frequently, I eventually built up a practice related to international claims.
In the absence of regular employment opportunities in a legal firm, I began to acquire a reputation as a private lawyer who would consider hopeless matters. Many of my clients only came to me after their cases had been lost or rejected by other attorneys. They were willing to pay a small contingent fee if I could snatch victory from defeat. Much of my practice revolved around weak cases that were morally justifiable. One example of such a case involved the world’s oldest and probably most renowned Jewish social organization, The International Order of B’nai B’rith, which boasted more than half a million members and occupied a large white building in the nation’s capital.
The B’nai B’rith had over a hundred lodges in Germany that were dissolved when Hitler came to power. In my capacity as Director of the JRSO, and therefore as the lawful custodian of dissolved Jewish organizations, I was responsible for the distribution of properties and funds to be used for the benefit of all surviving Nazi victims. Just as the JRSO gave the new congregations whatever they required from the former communal properties, the Supreme Lodge in Washington had been given the proceeds derived from the sale of their former German branches. My relations remained cordial with the B’nai B’rith leadership, and they were receptive when I approached them with an idea that, even though it may take years, would prove to their advantage.
The U.S. Government, as was customary, had seized all assets owned by nationals of countries with which we were at war. The sale of such enemy assets by the Alien Property Custodian provided funds that the U.S. Treasury could use to reimburse American citizens whose properties in Germany had been taken by the Reich. The B’nai B’rith was an American legal entity. If it could be shown that it was the owner of properties confiscated by Hitler, they might qualify to share in the war claims fund.
The President of B’nai B’rith was Philip Klutznick, a lawyer and astute real estate developer from Chicago. (He was later appointed Secretary of Commerce.) He recognized that retaining me to present a claim for the lodges might be good business. He was right. Of course, it was not easy to prove that a hundred different lodges registered as owners in a hundred different cities in Germany were not really the German owners, since the property belonged to the Supreme Lodge in Washington.
The judges in the War Claims Commission were very impressed with the creative legal arguments meticulously presented to substantiate the claims. They may also have been receptive to the enclosed photographs of the American Presidents who regularly appeared as keynote speakers at the annual conventions of the Order. After long negotiations, presentations, and appeals, the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission issued a final award in favor of the B’nai B’rith Supreme Lodge in Washington for more than a million dollars. However, that did not mean that the sum would simply be handed over in a check from the U.S. Treasury. If the total amount of the awards for all claimants exceeded the funds available, the payout would have to be prorated among the successful applicants. That could not be known until all awards were issued, totaled, and compared with the assets on hand. That would take time and might significantly diminish the actual payout.
At the same time, with the help of some astute Washington lobbyists, a preference had been written into the War Claims Law that would allocate all of the money to a few privileged corporate clients with very substantial awards. Innocuous sounding clauses disguised as “A Massachusetts Bus Compact” and “The Dutiable Status of Alumina and Hydroxide,” were appended to other bills, and there was a real danger that the B’nai B’rith, and similarly situated charitable organizations, might get nothing. A new amendment was needed to cancel the one that had been slipped past the numbed noses of the Congress. The wrath of Ferencz was upon the culprits!
Foreign Claims awards were matters of public record. As a former war crimes investigator, it was not difficult for me to discover who was being skewered and by whom. Since my adversaries had considerable influence on “The Hill,” I turned to even higher authorities. I decided to mobilize the churches and charities that would be the primary victims of the preferential legislation designed to divest them of their legal and moral entitlements. I invited them to a meeting where a plan of action could be considered. After due deliberation, about twenty of the participants formed “The Coordinating Council of Churches and Charities with War Claims Awards.” On my suggestion, I was invited to serve as Counsel to the Council. In addition to B’nai B’rith, I thus included among my clients Baptists, Protestants, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists, Seventh Day Adventists, and other religious denominations. The Catholics decided to have their interests protected by Sister Celestine, a lawyer whose cooperation I always welcomed. She was as sweet and gentle a nun as ever held a rosary, and her help was inspired and priceless. Her Order was “The Sisters of Charity,” and she may have benefitted from charity as well as Divine inspiration.
In order to protect the churches and charities, it was necessary for Congress to enact another amendment to the War Claims Bill. It could only be expected to pass if no objections were raised by any member of the House of Representatives or the Senate. I moved into a hotel near the Senate and began to make the rounds. In office after office, I explained to the Congressional aides that two corporations with large assets in East Germany were now trying to empty the church plate for their own advantage. The allegation that they were entitled to preference as a “small business” was a deliberate deception. The politicians were quite impressed by the list of U.S. churches whose parishioners needed protection in all corners of the country. No one dared speak out against the committees of their religious constituents who were organized to call on their congressmen for support.
Despite the merit of the amendment proposed by the churches, and the political pressure of the applicants, there were major obstacles to be overcome. Unless the Judiciary Committee voted for the bill, it could not even be considered by the Senate. I had learned that a leading Committee member was beholden to the lobbyists who were trying to raid the war claims till. Senator Edward Kennedy was also on the Judiciary Committee-and he was not beholden; in fact, one of his sisters was a Sister; by which I mean a nun. Sister Celestine, not related to Kennedy’s sister, accompanied me and other members of our group when we sought help from Senator Kennedy. He was sympathetic, but was stymied by the situation. The time had come to replace the silk gloves with a Crusader’s cross backed up by a Star of David.
I had come to know one of the aides to the Senator who was blocking our bill. The aide was a religious man who was visibly uncomfortable with the position taken by his boss, who was up for reelection. I informed the aide that when the Senator returned to his home state to campaign over the weekend, he would be visited by a committee of church representatives asking for his help. The important responsibility carried by the Senator would be widely advertised in a favorable way. If the Senator thereafter voted against the churches, that too would naturally attract widespread publicity.
When the church group called upon the Senator as had been prearranged, he listened, but made no commitment. He later invited me to join him for a cup of white bean soup in the Senate dining room. He drank sour milk. I guess it matched his mood. I proposed a compromise. His aide was sent scurrying to see if it was possible. After he had contacted the lobbyists, he reported, “No deal.” I continued my round to the honest Congressmen. All parties associated with the “Coordinating Council” were encouraged to contact their representatives. A few days later, obstructionist Senator spotted me in the Senate anteroom and approached me menacingly saying, “Who is putting all this pressure on me?” His face grew redder as he shouted, “I’d like to know who is putting all this pressure on me!” I replied softly, “Senator, you have your responsibilities, and I have mine.” The next day, the Judiciary Committee was scheduled to vote. Sister Celestine and I were waiting in the corridor outside the Committee door. Soon, Senator Kennedy came rushing over to us. “What did you do to that Senator?! I never saw such a flip-flop!” Reason had prevailed. The full Senate vote in favor of the churches was in the bag.
The House of Representatives also had an interesting denouement. The Speaker of the House was John McCormack of Massachusetts--a devout Catholic. His wife was ill and hospitalized in a D.C. hospital. Every evening, Speaker McCormack joined his dear wife for dinner at her bedside. The hospital, as chance, or somebody, would have it, was run by The Sisters of Charity. The nun who carried the evening tray had been briefed by Sister Celestine, my distinguished colleague in law. As the tray was handed to the Congressman, the dear Sister always asked, “And how, pray tell, is our War Claims Bill, coming along?” I was sitting in the balcony of the House when McCormick called up the bill for a vote. Before I knew what was happening, and with no discussion, he slammed down his gavel, and shouted “Passed.” I guess it’s true that “The Lord moves in strange and mysterious ways.”
My fee was 7% of the additional amount gained for my clients. Some of the biggest awards were made to important churches that took the benefits without contributing to me or to the group. The Catholics, with a sizeable award, contributed only the services of dear Sister Celestine, who was worth her weight in gold. I was so pleased with our success that I invited all those who had helped with the negotiations to be my guests at a party at a nice Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village. Sister Celestine arrived in a rickety old car driven by Sister Rosa. Since the waiters were not quite ready, we were invited to have a seat at the bar where the Sisters were served cold Coca Cola. When the owner showed up, he was quite surprised to see two nuns, in full habit, having a drink at his bar. I could see his consternation, until I explained. But it was a good laugh and a fitting celebration to our common efforts in a common and noble cause
Story 48: Reimbursing Good Samaritans
One of the enduring lessons of my life has been that if you are trying to achieve a just goal, even if it is without precedent and appears hopeless, the obstacles can be overcome with patience, perseverance, and persistence. There are four basic rules to follow: Never give up! Never give up! Never give up! Try harder!! Even after unprecedented German laws were enacted to provide some compensation to victims of persecution, and even after they were improved by laws that were labeled “Final,” it was still possible to obtain additional payments to help fill some of the gaps. When you are doing the impossible, it takes somewhat longer and requires much greater effort. To be sure, having clients who pay in advance makes life easier; my law practice was seldom easy.
When the concentration camps were liberated by Allied forces in 1945, many of the inmates were more dead than alive. Tuberculosis, dysentery, diarrhea, typhus, and other diseases had ravaged the emaciated bodies of starving survivors. My goal as a war crimes investigator was to get into the camps as quickly as possible, grab whatever incriminating evidence might be available, and get out of the camp. Army medical teams were on the scene quickly but, if the sick were ever to be restored, long term medical care would be vital. In most cases, complete recovery from invisible traumas would be impossible. Without immediate medical aid, many would perish. During The Hague negotiations in 1952, Germany recognized the legal principle that the cost of caring for Hitler’s victims should be borne by the wrongdoing German State. But they refused to compensate any private welfare agencies that cared for the sick and the dying. That refusal of the wrongdoer to reimburse the “good Samaritan” private organizations seemed to me to be an injustice that called for a remedy.
After long debates, the responsible German officials agreed to consider reimbursement if the individual victim in fact had a legal obligation to repay the charitable organizations that had incurred medical expenses on his behalf. As I would soon find by studying masses of records, this was indeed the case. Many of the Nazi victims had signed hospital paperwork agreeing to assign monies they might receive to pay for incurred costs. This legal obligation on behalf of the Nazi victims could serve as the basis for a claim for compensation. I passed this along to the Jewish organizations that might profit from the information, with a gentle suggestion that they might wish to consider retaining me to represent them on this difficult and uncertain matter.
Not all potential clients were prepared to accept my kind offer. I approached the Canadian Jewish Congress, since many Jewish survivors had found refuge in that country. The President of the Congress was Sam Bronfman, who made a fortune selling liquor. It was even reputed that, during prohibition in the United States, the Bronfman distilleries had been a supplier for the notorious bootlegger Al Capone. We met in Bronfman’s sumptuous office in Montreal. And of course he immediately offered me a drink from his well-stocked bar. I forgot that those who drink don’t usually trust those who don’t. I asked for orange juice, which he didn’t have. Needless to say, I didn’t get the juice and I didn’t get the job.
I had a similar experience with the Jewish Hospital in Denver that had specialized in treating tubercular concentration camp survivors. Their cautious Administrator felt that they could not agree to cover even part of my expenses. After years of effort in assembling evidence and contentious legal negotiations with several German ministries, I succeeded in settling the issue in favor of those clients who had authorized me to proceed on their behalf. I didn’t have the heart to leave the Denver Hospital out in the cold. When I mailed a check with a significant sum to the Denver Hospital, the new Administrator thanked me profusely for what he thought was a very generous personal donation.
It was particularly gratifying to present a sizeable check to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) which had given my family and I refuge when we first arrived in America. The New York Association for New Americans (NYANA) was a delighted recipient of unexpected reimbursement from Germany. These agencies had been fully cooperative in gathering the evidence necessary to persuade the Germans to make reimbursement payments, and they were very appreciative of my unusual efforts. Since Sam Bronfman and the Canadian Jewish Congress had instructed me to do nothing on their behalf, that’s what I did, and unfortunately, that’s what they got.
Another drawn out case with medical implications concerned young Catholic women who had been victims of experiments while prisoners at the Nazi concentration camp in Ravensbrueck, Poland. For purely political reasons, West Germany refused to consider any claims from Nazi victims who resided behind the Iron Curtain. The argument was made that since West Germany had no diplomatic relations with Poland or other communist countries, claims from those areas were excluded. I always felt that such irrational discrimination was unjustified, but there was nothing I could do to change it. As far as I knew, no nation was ready to declare war on Germany again.
One day, in 1957, a very nice lady named Caroline Ferriday showed up at my office with an interesting plea. From her association with various anti-Nazi organizations, she had learned about young Polish women who had been shipped to the concentration camp at Ravensbrueck where they were subjected to a host of medical experiments. The record of such cruelties had been spelled out in the Medical Case at Nuremberg and I knew that the Nazis would commit any atrocity in the name of science. Miss Ferriday knew that I had helped Jewish claimants, and she wondered if I would also come to the aid of the Catholic ladies from Poland. My humanitarian concerns were never drawn along religious lines, and I promised to be of assistance.
After the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Japan, the editor of the prestigious Saturday Review magazine, Norman Cousins, arranged to bring a group of “Hiroshima Maidens” to the U.S. for cosmetic surgery. They were treated by a Jewish surgeon, Dr. Hitzig, in a New York hospital in the hope that the humanitarian gesture might help to heal the wounds in more ways than one. The kindly effort at reconciliation received much favorable publicity. Miss Ferriday approached Norman Cousins with a request that he consider doing the same for the scarred young women of Poland who had been treated as “guinea pigs.” After some deliberation, Cousins created a committee of publicists to deal with it. I was invited to be the pro-bono Counsel. I took it upon myself to try to persuade the West German government to include the victims of medical experiments in their compensation legislation. The Germans absolutely refused to consider it. It didn’t take long for our committee to conclude that we absolutely refused to take “No” for their unkind answer.
“Never give up!” was the battle cry. Cousins arranged for a plane to bring a large group of scarred women from Warsaw to New York, courtesy of Pan American Airlines. The young ladies were greeted at the airport by the press, and were then taken to St. Patrick’s cathedral where the Cardinal made a stirring speech welcoming the once-fair maidens to our fair city. Arrangements were made for the young ladies to attend meetings in Washington with Congressmen who had significant Polish constituencies. All the publicity had the same plaintive song: “See what the Nazis did to these poor girls and the West Germans won’t give them a cent. For shame! For shame!” The German Ambassador in Washington had brushed off my first approaches. After listening to our plaintive melody, which was broadcast on radio all across the country, the embarrassed Ambassador began to change his tune. He showed me a copy of his cable to Bonn saying that it was not a legal matter but a political problem that had better be resolved quickly.
Soon, the West German cabinet held a special meeting to deal with the hot political issue. Trying to overcome the adamant German opposition to any payment, I had proposed that we set a fixed limit on the total cost. I knew I was not the most popular man in town, but I was standing by in the cabinet ante-room in Bonn if negotiations required my presence. The word soon came that the cabinet was willing to make a payment, but not via me. Rumor had it that I was regarded as a communist agitator trying to enrich himself. I wonder why they hated me so? I suggested they bring in the International Committee of the Red Cross. When that seemed agreeable, I flew to Geneva where the Red Cross stated it would accept the responsibility but only if there was no maximum set on the total. They would medically examine each applicant and pay agreed upon sums to three different categories of claimants depending upon the severity of the injuries. The German government, of course, would have to bear all costs. Having gone so far, the cabinet could no longer back out. The deal was sealed.
On June 22, 1960, the German cabinet passed a special resolution authorizing payments to victims of medical experiments, including those from the East. I even arranged that payments would be made in Swiss francs at a favorable rate of exchange, and could be spent by the beneficiaries for medical care in Switzerland. Having created the precedent, the German government was soon flooded with similar claims from medical experiment victims in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and other eastern countries. A few years later, one of my insider German friends, who handled Finance Ministry statistics, reported to me the amount actually paid out for victims of medical experiments. It was at least ten times more than what I had suggested for a quick global settlement. The unexpected outcome was another illustration that you can never know for sure what will turn out to be good luck. “Just keep trying and do your best” should always be the rule.
One of the health-related clauses which the West German government accepted for inclusion in the indemnification laws was the right of an injured Nazi victim to seek free rehabilitation at a German spa. It was argued that if the disability could be diminished, the compensation might be reduced. Israeli doctors, many of whom came from Germany, were quite accustomed to prescribing several weeks of convalescence in quiet surroundings. The indemnification authorities were happy to grant the request. It couldn’t do any harm, and it might help. Besides, the German spas would prosper. URO Board meeting were often held in such spas. I was always tickled to notice that many of the old ladies promenading through the lovely gardens and drinking the waters spoke to each other in Yiddish.
Story 49: The Joy of Practicing Law
One of the joys of the legal profession is the opportunity to engage in a large variety of activities. Before I even began my law practice in New York, I had been a prosecutor of mass murderers, the administrator of innovative new charitable organizations, and the director of what may have been the largest legal aid society in the world. None of those activities qualified me for the traditional careers that embraced my typical Harvard classmates who joined prestigious law partnerships, became bank presidents, and leaders of their churches and communities. I have no regrets. I cringe when I note advertisements by law firms, with hundreds or even thousands of members, proclaiming their abilities to enrich clients through class actions against defendants with deep pockets. Lawyers (like some corporate executives) seem to have forgotten that they are the servants of shareholders, not their masters. Medical specialists, now known as “Providers,” examine who pays before they examine the patient. Releases from all liability are mandatory, and house calls an anomaly. Of course, there are exceptions, but, if you pardon my repetition, they are only exceptions. I long for the day when one doctor could provide a comprehensive diagnosis and one lawyer could be entrusted with all legal problems of his client. I guess I am just old-fashioned.
There were some occasions in my varied practice when lawyers behaved as lawyers should. One day, a woman entered my office with a rather bizarre story. She had been a nurse in Berlin during the pre-Hitler years. She had fallen in love with a Jewish doctor and, after a romantic courtship, they were wed. Three days later, he put her out and sued for divorce, taking the blame on himself. He began to pay the court designated alimony. After Hitler came to power in 1933, no Jew could practice medicine. Her ex-husband fled to France where, he worked surreptitiously as a hospital surgeon. He continued his alimony payments until he disappeared. The divorced wife never remarried, but after the war, she emigrated to New York. While riding on a bus, she spotted her ex-husband standing on the sidewalk. A search of the phone directory revealed his name right under her own. She did nothing until, some years later, she read his obituary in the New York Times. He had apparently prospered in America, had remarried, and had children. The ex-wife wondered if she had any legal rights to his estate.
My search of official records revealed that when the fugitive doctor had applied for his marriage license in New York, he had stated that he had never been previously married. I also located the name of the lawyer handling the probate of the estate. He was a well-known Harvard attorney who had been a respected judge. I invited him to lunch to discuss the case, and we enjoyed a very pleasant meal at the Harvard club. In due course, I noted that there had been no alimony payments for over 30 years, and the false statement on the marriage license application might cast doubt on the validity of the doctor’s second marriage. The judge responded, as I expected he would, that the validity of the second marriage would probably be upheld. I noted in rebuttal that since the Jewish doctor had been driven out of Germany, he was receiving a pension under the German indemnification laws that I had helped negotiate. His widow in New York was entitled to, and was probably receiving, a reduced amount. If I interceded with the German authorities they would, most likely, honor the Berlin divorce decree and turn the New York widow’s pension into an alimony award with retroactive effect. I did not wish to embarrass his client but, of course, I owed it to my client to explore that possibility.
We both agreed that it might prove very distressing to the widow and the doctor’s family to reveal the undisclosed prior marriage. After several private meetings dealing with rates of exchange, accumulated interest, inflation, and other relevant factors, an agreement was reached. The Judge, correctly labeling it a “claim against the estate,” handed me a check in the amount we both felt would be equitable under the circumstances. No legal action had been commenced, and no papers were filed. When I handed the check over to the former 3-day bride, she was very pleasantly surprised. It was a fair gentlemen’s agreement that benefited both his client and mine. It was the way law should be practiced.
The worst way to practice law is to sit in conferences all day with people who love to sit in conferences all day. To some, it may be welcomed as a fitting substitute for work. For me it was a form of torture.
Perhaps worse than attending conferences was the requirement to attend dinners in honor of various people or occasions. I recall when B’nai B’rith invited me to attend the hundredth anniversary of the order. It was a black tie affair in London’s finest hotel. I carefully dusted off my tuxedo for the festive occasion. While getting dressed for the event, I noticed that I had forgotten to include the bow tie. How can one attend a black-tie event without a black tie? I always felt that putting a noose around one's neck and tightening it was both ridiculous and dangerous. I accepted that tribal custom as an unavoidable price to be paid for living in so-called civilized society. So I cut the center out of another dark tie and fashioned a neat bow around my neck. I just created a new style which caused some strange looks in my direction but the British are too polite to notice such things.
I had also forgotten to include any cuff links. First I tried to roll up my sleeves, but the sleeves were too long and my arms were too short. I found a little B’nai B’rith lapel pin, made of silver and diamond chips fashioned as a menorah, that had been given to me for serving as President of my local lodge. That would make a fine cuff link. But I noticed that I had two arms. For the other cuff I used a twisted paper clip. I thought it quite clever, until a very formal English dowager, who sat on my right, noticed the diamond clip and remarked politely that it was such an appropriate and interesting cuff link. I explained that it was really a lapel button. “Did you have two of them?” she asked. I confessed that I had only one and, in response to her quizzical gaze, I showed her my left wrist where my old paper clip could be seen substituting for the diamond pin. She nearly fainted.
Because of my intensive schedule of travels to Claims Conference meetings and the many United Restitution Organization offices throughout the world, I became well known to hotels in London, Paris, Geneva, Israel, and major German cities. I hated them all. I felt it was demeaning to both giver and receiver to have to “tip” for services already amply overpaid for. I also hated hotel food. I did develop a certain affection for the Piccadilly Hotel in London where they told me they were glad to get rid of me. That unusual confession came about as a result of an unusual ailment.
It may have been the winter of 1958 when I arrived in London with an obvious case of the flu. The doctor at the Piccadilly Hotel ordered me confined to bed for at least 10 days. The participants at the conferences I was unable to attend felt obliged to come by the hotel to wish me a speedy recovery. Each one carried a little gift, such as a jar of delicious pigs feet in aspic, gooseberries vinaigrette, and similar English delicacies that might cause any non-British ailing patient to wish he were dead. I groaned politely and motioned for them to leave these savories on the mantelpiece that unfortunately was visible from my bedside. When any of the maids appeared to clean the room I urged them to please take one of the nauseating gifts away, as a token of my appreciation. Soon my room became a daily shrine of hotel employees inquiring about my health. They were happy to take one of those horrible dishes. After all, they were British.
When, at last, I was relieved from my imprisonment, I went to the manager to pay my bill. He asked politely; “How are you feeling now, Mr. Ferencz?” “Fine, just fine,” I replied, knowing that my mantelpiece had been emptied without my having to even taste any of the poisons there assembled. “Well, said the Manager,” I must say, we are happy to see you go.” I inquired apologetically, “Why is that?” His sad reply was “Half of our staff is out with your flu.” I guess it was something they ate.
On one of my sea voyages to the States, I had as a table companion a pleasant young woman from Holland. I noticed that she wore a Star of David on her bracelet and came to the table carrying a book of Jewish studies. I asked her whether she was Jewish and she answered, “No, but I would like to be.” She explained the strange reply by telling me that she was affianced to a young Englishman whom she was going to visit in South America. They were eager to wed, but his orthodox Jewish parents would only give their blessing if she converted to Judaism. The eager couple had been to see his orthodox rabbi in London who counseled her to study all about the Jewish religion. If she could pass his test he would do whatever rabbis do to switch her from one religion to another. He told her to return after three years.
The passions of youth are hard to restrain. She was understandably quite unhappy about the long wait and I promised to see what I could do to help her. When we got to New York, I phoned a Reform rabbi whom I knew to be quite liberal in his thinking. In fact, he was a former German, and the beneficiary of one of those German pensions that I had arranged for Nazi victims. Feeling indebted, he said I could give her his name and he would see what could be done. Several months later, when I had almost forgotten about her plight, a nice plant was delivered to my office. It was accompanied by a letter from my Dutch acquaintance thanking me profusely for my help. She was passing through New York with her fiancée on her way back to London to get married. With the help of my liberal Rabbi in New York, she had quickly qualified as a certified Jewish convert acceptable even to the orthodox parents in England.
I added the accomplishment to my “Mitzvah File” where I recorded all of my good deeds. You may recall that when I was about 6 years old, my pious grandfather had sold his good deeds to a dying friend who wanted to have them on his record when he faced his Maker. That struck me even then as a very promising business. Besides, you never know when it might come in handy to get a receipt for all good deeds. My “Mitzvah File” was among my papers donated to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, with the story of my playing Cupid among them. It is a story of triumphant love, and the flexibility of the Jewish religion.
Story 50: You Can’t Win Them All
The Nuremberg trials could try only a small sampling of major Nazi war criminals. German restitution negotiations were bound to have an unhappy ending, since no payments could possibly erase the harm or painful memories. No problems related to the Holocaust could be resolved quickly or adequately. Nor could they be swept under the carpet and be expected to disappear. When I bid farewell to my staff in 1956 at a party in Kronberg Castle near Frankfurt, I had no idea where Fate might take me. I soon discovered that my traumas of World War Two and the work I had been doing in Germany thereafter could not simply be discarded and forgotten. I was condemned, like Sisyphus of Greek mythology, to push a heavy rock up a very steep hill, not knowing if I would ever reach the top. The ultimate goal, of course, would be a world of justice under law where all could live in peace and human dignity. I tried to live in the real world without losing sight of the dream. It wasn’t always easy.
To avoid starvation, I did the things that lawyers are normally expected to do to gain clients. I became a member of the local reform synagogue and went on “retreats” with my rabbi and congregation. I joined organizations and social groups. I invited acquaintances to lunch and dinner, went to the theater, and made speeches to countless assemblies that could not afford a speaker. At one bible breakfast I was rewarded by being allowed to take home three leftover bagels. Man cannot live by bagels alone. I characterized my efforts to attract paying clients as “indecent exposure.”
I even tried investing in real estate, but soon realized that since there were more tenants than landlords, the “temporary” wartime rent controls would last forever. It was impossible for income to match the expenses. I was disheartened to see whole neighborhoods turn into slums, and the prevailing corruption led me to abandon or dispose of my holdings at any price—which wasn’t much. Small commercial transactions and dubious negligence cases on a contingent fee held no attraction or treasures. It became plain that an admittedly inexperienced and often-absentee lawyer was not in great demand. I decided to stick with the subjects I knew best.
At Nuremberg, we had conducted three trials against German industrialists without whose help Hitler could not have come to power. They had worked concentration camp inmates to death as slave laborers, and had seized factories in German-occupied territories. Around 1953, Norbert Wollheim, a former inmate who had worked for IG Farben in Auschwitz, started a lawsuit against the German company demanding DM 10.000 (then about $2,500) as compensation. German indemnification laws provided a small payment for his unlawful detention, but nothing whatsoever for the value of the labor or the pain and suffering. The Finance Ministry insisted that it was a private matter between the laborers and the companies that employed them. Wollheim and his German attorney, Henry Ormond, who had served time in Dachau, turned to the Claims Conference for help. Because of my Nuremberg connection, it was natural that I should accept primary responsibility for proceeding against Farben on behalf of all those who had toiled for the firm at Auschwitz and other camps.
Less than 15,000 camp survivors were able to prove their entitlement, and they received payouts that ranged from under $1,000 up to $3,000. Every penny received was divided among the entitled survivors. Only a portion of the accumulated interest was used to cover administrative costs. The German companies paid as little as they felt they could get away with. It was often very painful for me to explain gently why some were paid, while others, who had been equally exploited by other companies, had to go away empty handed. All of the parties were dissatisfied with the meager settlements that were made with a few companies. It was the best that could be done under the circumstances. Many on the German side argued that there was no obligation to do anything—“war is war!” Some companies felt that, at best, it was perhaps a moral obligation; survivors insisted it was also a legal one.
The paltry sums eked out for former slave laborers would cost the German firms dearly about thirty years later. That is not my story to tell, since I was not involved in the later proceedings. That the companies would regret their meager payments was predicted by my law partner, Telford Taylor, in his prescient introduction to my 1979 book, Less Than Slaves (Harvard University Press). My own retrospective evaluation appears in the reprint, published in 2002 by Indiana University Press in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. There is no doubt that the settlement set a historical legal precedent that those who abuse others in their power have an obligation to make amends. That moral principle has become binding international law under the statue for the International Criminal Court created in 2002.
In considering disappointments, we should recall the failure to obtain compensation from the communist government of the East German Democratic Republic (GDR). After the brusk return of a million dollars to the GDR by the Jewish Claims Conference, in November 1976, it took at least a year before the negotiations could be put back on track. The GDR was in no rush; neither was the U.S. government. The negotiations continued for years.
After Nahum Goldmann died in 1982, Rabbi Israel Miller took his place as chairman of the Claims Conference. Negotiations regarding compensation for the Jews continued in secret meetings with the GDR Foreign Minister, Oskar Fischer, when he visited the UN in New York. After years of tough negotiation, an agreement was reached whereby the GDR promised to pay the Claims Conference $100 million in installments. It wasn’t exactly what we wanted, but it was better than nothing. I drew up the contract with the GDR Ambassador in Washington, and the Claims Conference Board was kept fully informed at all times. The U.S. State Department was also fully informed, and seemed to be overruled when Colin Powell, then National Security Council Advisor, vetoed any agreement with the communist government.
Shortly thereafter, I was surprised to read in The New York Times that the President of the World Jewish Congress, Edgar Bronfman, son of Sam Bronfman, had met with the communist dictator of East Germany, Erik Honnecker. It was announced in East Berlin that the GDR agreed to pay $100 million to Nazi victims in the U.S. I feared that such a premature announcement might raise false hopes among Nazi victims. It may have enhanced the prestige of the World Jewish Congress and its President, but it was news to me that Bronfman was in any way involved in these negotiations for the previous 10 years. In the end, Honnecker pinned a medal on Bronfman, and the GDR went out of existence and in the end, paid nothing.
But that’s not the conclusion of what seemed like a sad story. When Germany was given back its sovereignty in 1952, it agreed, that in the unlikely event of reunification, they would enact restitutional legislation similar to what they had done in the West. This meant that the Jewish Nazi victims whose assets in East Germany had been seized received infinitely more than they might have gotten from any deal with the defunct German Democratic Republic.
As consolation to Honnecker and Fischer, I shall recall another case that was lost by me and redounded to the benefit of East Germany. On one of my European trips, I was approached by a regal lady known with the majestic title, “The Grand Duchess of Weimar, Saxony, and Eisenach." Her Majesty alleged that some paintings had disappeared from her castle in Weimar, East Germany. The paintings by the renowned artist Albrecht Duerer had apparently been acquired by an art lover who happened to be in the U.S. Army when it occupied Weimar during the war. The “liberated” portraits of a husband and wife next showed up in New York where they were bought by another art connoisseur, a lawyer who balked at the asking price of $500 and paid only $450. Of course, the paintings were worth millions. The lawyer said he kept the paintings on display in his living room for 15 years after which, coincidentally, no legal claims could be expected. The Grand Duchess, Her Highness, my client, wanted the paintings back. The East Germans said the palace and the paintings were public property. West Germans also wanted the paintings as national treasures. Who was the real owner was very much in dispute.
I realized, when I agreed to represent her, that the Grand Duchess had a very doubtful case. But I hoped I might induce the communist government to swap the pictures of a Nuremberg banker and his spouse for some fine portraits of Comrade Stalin or Trotsky or similar revolutionary heroes, that might be languishing in the cellar at the Metropolitan or some other U.S. museum. No way! The U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, that had been mulling over the case for about 10 years, concluded that a thief cannot pass good title. The American soldier who removed the paintings from Germany may have been an art lover, but he was also a crook. Those who later bought the painting could not become lawful owners of the stolen objects.
Despite protests by my distinguished client, the evidence indicated that her husband, the Duke, had surrendered the paintings to the State. The two portraits were returned to Weimar where they now hang in the public castle from whence they were taken. I hope that they will be enjoyed by the good citizens of Weimar forever. Her Highness had promised me one of the paintings as my fee. Now, all I can do is look at the photographs and sigh. I was beginning to reach the conclusion that I should look for a new career. My mind began to focus on something simple, like the prevention of another Holocaust.
Story 51: A Mélange of Vignettes
My law practice required me to travel regularly to Germany, Israel, England, and many other countries over a period of at least 30 years. During the course of such trips, the costs of which were equitably apportioned among the many clients served, I had a number of varied experiences and encounters which have remained in my memory, even though the time-frames may be a bit scrambled now that my brain is more than 85 years old. Since the tales do not fit neatly within the rubric of subjects previously described, I call them, for want of a more enticing description, “A Mélange of Vignettes,” which, if you’ll pardon my French, simply means a hodgepodge of short stories.
Vignette One: Vietnam War on Mock Trial
In the midst of the undeclared Vietnam war in the 1960s, many American citizens felt strongly that leaders responsible for what was frequently perceived as illegal aggression and crimes against humanity should be brought to justice in a court of law. It was a time of travail and indecision for many young people. The Nuremberg trials had ended around 1948, and the tribunals had been dissolved.
Unfortunately, there was no new International Criminal Tribunal to take its place. The legal issues revolving around the Vietnam conflict were debated but unresolved. There was an obvious gap in the existing international legal order. Politicians and diplomats seemed unable or unwilling to settle their differences by peaceful means. In England, an unofficial war crimes tribunal was created in the name of Bertrand Russell, a well- known British philosopher and liberal activist. Its declared goal was to reveal the truth. Russell, whose works I admired, was then past 90 years of age, and I was rather skeptical about his personal involvement in such an enterprise. I decided to check it out before responding to their requests for my help.
On my next trip to London, in 1967, I located the small seedy Russell office and asked for more information. Propaganda leaflets, extolling the Soviet Union, were neatly stacked on shelves. On the wall, I noticed a schedule (pronounced shed-yule) of marches that were to erupt spontaneously in various cities to protest against the Vietnam war. Berlin was on the list on a date that I expected to be in that city. Sure enough, on the appointed day, I could see from the balcony of my hotel facing the Kurfurstendam that crowds of young people were gathering, waving anti-war placards. It made me feel right at home. I went down to get a better view. No sooner had they started to march and shout than a number of police and fire trucks appeared and began spraying the protesters with powerful bursts of cold water. I ducked into a doorway to avoid being soaked. It was like a great game with young marchers dashing behind the police vehicles to avoid further immersion. Most of them had only a very vague idea about the issues involved or how the event had been pre-planned. The young people did not realize that they were being manipulated. Soon, the crowd of rioters dispersed, but not before press and media had photographs showing the people of Germany in a “spontaneous uprising” against U.S. aggression. It would have been appropriate to conclude that the rioters were all wet.
The mock trial conducted by the Russell Tribunal remained a mockery. Of course, none of the accused appeared in court. It was a one-sided anti-American show. What a pity that the world community had not yet created an international legal forum that could examine the facts objectively and render respected judgments to uphold the rule of law. I tried to analyze and present the issues objectively in a law review article, “War Crimes Law and the Vietnam War.” (American University, 1968) It appealed for an international tribunal that would have made such mock trials and protest marches unnecessary, and would perhaps have diminished some of the agony that tore America apart.
Following the My Lai massacre by American soldiers in Vietnam, I wrote another article that advocated “Compensating Victims of the Crimes of War” (Virginia Journal of International Law, 1972). Years later, I arranged to meet Hugh Thompson, “The Forgotten Hero of My Lai,” who was the Warrant Officer who rescued Vietnamese civilians in danger of being slaughtered by William Calley, the American Lieutenant subsequently convicted by a U.S. military court for his war crimes. When I first heard the Hugh Thompson story, in a book by Seymour Hersch, I wanted to pin a medal on Thompson for his humanity and heroism in standing up to a higher ranking officer who was violating the rules of war. Unfortunately, Thompson told me, when I met him in New Rochelle years later, that he had never met Seymour Hersch and the book My Lai, written by Hirsch, was full of fabrications and exaggerations. I was pleased to learn, that after much political pressure, Thompson received the Soldier’s Medal for Bravery. It was appropriately awarded at a ceremony at the Vietnam Wall in Washington in March 1998.
Vignette Two: Priests on Trial in Hawaii
When I was a very young man, I loved to listen to the twanging sound of music played on the Hawaiian guitar. I even took some lessons on that instrument which my mother bought for me in a pawnshop. Since I never had the patience to practice, my playing was so bad and the assault on my ears so unbearable, that I soon gave up in self-defense. Nevertheless, I still retained warm images of beautiful native girls, clad in garlands of flowers, dancing the hula-hula while swaying gently on the sunny beaches of Waikiki. Obviously, I had never actually been to Hawaii. In the summer of 1972, I was very pleasantly surprised to receive a telegram inviting me to come to Honolulu to serve as an attorney on a very urgent and important legal matter. I immediately accepted. My wife said she would accompany me.
When our plane touched down at Honolulu airport, I expected to be greeted by music and song. Instead of native girls with flowery leis around their necks, I was greeted by three Jesuit priests in black cassocks and white collars. They explained that they would have to appear in U.S. Federal Court the very next day to answer criminal charges that they had illegally entered U.S. government premises and destroyed and damaged U.S. government property. The accused priests expected me to plead “the Nuremberg Defense” which, they believed, justified their actions. As a protest against the war, they somehow thought that breaking into the U.S. Air Force air base and pouring something resembling blood all over file cabinets, would prevent continuing aggression and war crimes in Vietnam. They could call, as character witnesses, two Fathers who were actually brothers. The well known Berrigan brothers, who were Catholic priests, had spent time in jail for similar protests. My Fathers, who were not my brothers but my clients, apologized that they could only pay for my personal travel expenses, and that I would have their blessings instead of cash. I promised to do my best. After all, I had learned from my Grandpa that blessings can sometimes be converted into money.
Early the next morning, and for about five days thereafter, I sat in the Federal Courthouse listening to the Prosecutors and witnesses describe the dastardly crimes of my gentle clients. When my turn came, I pulled myself up to my full five-foot almost two inches and, in an address worthy of Demosthenes, I compared the defendants to good Samaritans who, on passing a house in flames, must break down the door to rescue the children cowering on the roof. Surely they lacked any criminal intent, and could not be convicted of a federal crime! The crowd cheered. The Judge sneered. The defendants were so moved that they asked me to cool it. They warned that if I carried on that way, they might be acquitted! They made plain that they really wanted to be sent to jail. I didn’t know whether they wanted to be martyrs or to make me one. The Judge heard their prayers. He ignored my arguments. The defendants were all convicted. I didn’t wait for the sentencing but got out of town without seeing anything of Hawaii. I didn’t file an appeal. I’m sure my clients blessed me.
Vignette Three: Cracking a Safe in Frankfurt
No one would suspect that once I had been a safe-cracker. Yet, it came about that one of my wealthier clients, who had managed to get out of Germany with much of his fortune intact, had kept a safe-deposit box in a Frankfurt bank. When my client died, the bank sent notice to the heirs that the annual fee for the box had not been paid. That was the first inclination the heirs had that their father ever possessed such a repository. I promised that, on my next Frankfurt trip, I would look into the matter. When I did, I learned that I could look into the matter but not into the box. The bank officers had a key, but it would only work in conjunction with the key held by the depositor. We knew where the depositor was buried but not where he had buried the key. No one had any idea about what he might have stashed away in the box. To unlock the secret, as well as the box, a professional safe-cracker was needed. He worked by appointment only.
In the midst of the next meeting in Frankfurt of the URO Board of Directors, in 1978, I suddenly rose and asked to be excused. I explained, in my usual serious and truthful manner, that I had an appointment to crack open a safe at the nearby bank. They assumed it was one of my usual bad jokes. When I rushed to the bank for the heist, the gang was waiting. Two bank officers stood inside the vault. The locks to hundreds of boxes lined the walls. A short man, armed with a long drill, mounted a tall ladder to reach the top row. As he began to cut away the lock, we all speculated about the possible contents. Balancing himself carefully, he used both hands to slowly withdraw a long metal drawer from the wall. He paused, shook the box, and declared, in German, “It’s not empty!” When the box was opened, the birds began to sing. The box contained nothing but gold coins of various denominations, a heavy gold bracelet and some diamonds. It was not unusual for those who had become refugees to anticipate the possibility of sudden flight. Stashing away some assets that could be easily transported was a form of life insurance. The witnesses certified the contents, and I arranged to have the bank convert the gold into cash and ship the rest to the heirs in the United States. No charge. I wonder if the URO Board ever believed my story.
Vignette Four: Friends Who Have Made a Difference
From personal observation of dreamers I have had the privilege to know, I learned that very often, the dedication and vision of one individual can make a difference in the world. Fortunately, such individuals do not seem discouraged by awareness that full appreciation may not come until after they are dead. Most visionaries fail to gain recognition during their lifetime. If they get any credit thereafter is a question beyond my competence or comprehension. Many dedicated individuals who come together in a common cause form enduring friendships that last as long as they live. So it was with many fine persons I encountered in the search for a world of peace and humanity under law.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, recognizes the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world. These aspirations were articulated by Rene Cassin, a Jewish lawyer who had fled from Paris with General DeGaulle before the German armies occupied France. Cassin was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, even though many of his ideals remained unfulfilled during his lifetime. While on one of my European trips in the 1970s, I stopped at the beautiful old city of Strasbourg to meet with Cassin at a Human Rights Institute created there in his honor. He had the appearance of a patriarch, yet his manner was warm and friendly. His quiet demeanor concealed the fact that he was, to large extent, responsible for the beginning of a revolution. The rights of human beings anywhere became the legitimate concern of people everywhere.
Rafael Lemkin was a poor Polish Jewish lawyer who lost his entire family in the Holocaust. He coined the word “Genocide.” Without any official mandate, he stalked the halls of Nuremberg trying to get the Prosecutors to charge that genocide was an international crime. The word did not appear in either the Charter of the International Military Tribunal or the Charter for the Subsequent trials. But I used the term in my opening statement in the Einsatzgruppen Case. Justice Robert Jackson had done the same at the trial before the International Militarty Tribunal. Lemkin pursued his goal at the United Nations, and played a key role in drafting the Genocide Convention. Today, everyone knows what genocide means and condemns it as a most atrocious crime. The fact that it took the U.S. Senate forty years to ratify the Genocide Convention is a stain on the history of the United States.
Nations that had historically been at each other’s throats for centuries formed a European Union, with a Convention on Human Rights that was accepted by all members. A Court of Human Rights was established in Strasbourg to judge whether the treaty had been violated. Like all new international institutions, it developed slowly and cautiously, and its decisions avoided major political confrontations. The remarkable fact about the Human Rights Court is that it exists. I often met members of the Strasbourg court at the Max Planck Institute for Public International Law located in Heidelberg. Most of them were dedicated visionaries who recognized that they were part of a much larger evolutionary movement toward a more humane world order. They were a living example of the progress that was being made toward fulfillment of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today, universities all over the world teach about humanitarian law and human rights; not too long ago, such courses were unheard of and non-existent.
Soon after I began to seek compensation from German firms for the abuse of their slave laborers, I received a letter from a young man named Thomas Buergenthal, who was born in Slovenia in 1934. He wrote that he had been imprisoned by the Nazis as a child and forced to work under inhumane circumstances for the Heinkel aircraft company in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin. He wondered if he would be entitled to compensation. The German Supreme Court had ruled in favor of the German companies and there was little I could do to help him. We remained in contact and, in due course, Tom settled in the U.S., acquired law degrees from New York University and Harvard, and began what was to become an outstanding legal career.
In 1972, I lectured to Professor Buergenthal’s class at the New York School of Law in Buffalo. The last time I had been in Buffalo was in 1938, when, at the age of 18, I was arrested by the railroad police for arriving there sitting on a pile of gravel on a freight train. I was released with a warning when I persuaded the cops that I only intended to visit the nearby Niagara Falls but couldn’t afford the train fare. I don’t recall if I told the law class about my illegal escapades. We certainly talked about Nuremberg and crimes against humanity, a subject in which Buergenthal became a renowned expert.
The Buergenthal family had been victims of persecution by the Hitler regime, and Tom was particularly sensitive to the need for protecting human rights. In 1979, he became President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the American Society of International Law. He continued teaching at various universities, and wrote numerous books and articles dealing with the subject. He played a leading role on countless Boards, Committees, Associations, and Foundations seeking to create a more humane legal order. In all of them, he was held in the highest regard, and earned many awards.
In 2002, the United Nations elected Tom Burgenthal to its highest judicial office—the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In 2003, we met in his chambers overlooking the gardens of the Palace of Justice, and reminisced about how our paths had intertwined over the years. We both were pleased to attend the formal swearing-in ceremonies of the Judges for the new International Criminal Court. No official of the United States Government was present. The administration in Washington was showing its opposition to any international tribunal that did not guarantee immunity for U.S. citizens. The International Criminal Court was a permanent institution designed to deter and punish major atrocities against humankind. The absence of any U.S. government representative was another stain on the history of the United States.
Vignette Five: Peace Advocates Unite
Around 1971, I was invited to a three-day conference on an estate known as “Wingspread” in Racine, Wisconsin. The house had been designed by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It had been owned by the philanthropic Johnson family that acquired great wealth by selling wax. I was pleased to realize that every time I shined my shoes with Johnson polish I was contributing to the family fortune. The conference, and several similar gatherings in later years, was organized by Robert Woetzel, who had co-authored a book dealing with the feasibility of an international criminal court. He managed to bring together more than a dozen noted international legal experts. Professor Louis Sohn of Harvard was the Chair. His book, World Peace Through World Law, was a classic. We met often at meetings of the American Society for International Law, where he was elected President. Sohn was an outstanding legal scholar who later wrote introductions to four of my books written between 1975 and 1991. We remained friends until his death in 2006, after a long and terrible bout with Alzheimer's disease that drained his gifted mind.
Another participant in the Wingspread meeting, and similar meetings that followed, was a lawyer from Trinidad and Tobago known as A.N.R. Robinson. Since his initials stood for August Napoleon Raymond, we agreed that I could call him “Ray.” He had studied at Oxford and Harvard, and was a very handsome and articulate man. He later became Prime Minister and then President of Trinidad. While in office, he had been shot in the knees by drug traffickers. He called on the General Assembly of the UN to move forward with creating the International Criminal Court, hoping it could end the prevailing impunity of organized criminal gangs who were stronger than national law enforcement authorities. For his important role in advancing the international court, he was deservedly honored. When he was about to leave office in 1999, it was my privilege to pay homage to this unsung hero at his formal farewell dinner in Trinidad. We remain friends to this day.
Professor Ved Nanda of Denver Law School was another Wingspread pioneer. In 1979, I invited him and Professor Otto Triffterer, then teaching in Germany, to join in a panel discussion in Madrid. Otto failed to show. Fortunately, Ved had brought one of his bright students with him. I asked her to serve as a substitute. Although she was a stand-in, I invited her to sit down. She did such a good job that Ved and Kathy were soon wed. They sent me photos of their colorful nuptial celebration in India. I was delighted to visit them in Denver on several occasions, and to observe the growth of their beautiful daughter, Angeli. In 1984, Nanda, Triffterer, and I were among a large group invited to Siracusa in Sicily for a week-long conference organized by the prolific Professor Cherif Bassiouni of De Paul University. When the El Italia plane touched down, we were informed that, regrettably, all the passengers' luggage had departed for some distant and unknown land. Since I only travel with a carry-on suitcase, I promptly prepared a package of shorts and shirt for my short friend Ved. Years later, when I was invited to Denver to lecture to his class, he introduced me as “a man who would give you the shirt off his back.”
Professor Triffterer became my friend for another reason. As relaxation in Siracusa, Cherif organized a game of volley ball. Coming from De Paul University in Chicago, the astute Bassiouni had invited the burly Chicago Chief of Police to the crime conference. He also picked the Chief for the Bassiouni team. I was an expert on the criminal court not the volleyball court, so I stayed out of the game—much to everyone’s relief. Otto should have followed my example. No sooner had he hit the field than he was hit by the Police Chief. Otto hit the ground. I am not sure whether his leg or only his ankle was broken, but I remember pushing his wheelchair when we traveled back to Germany together. When Triffterer became Dean of the Law School in Salzburg, Austria, he arranged summer seminars on international criminal law. I was pleased to be a regular lecturer for my old friend.
A more unusual friendship grew out of correspondence with Dr. Alfred Bauer, a pediatrician and obstetrician from Seattle, Washington. Bauer wrote to me that he required all his patients to read my book Planethood if they were interested in the future health of their babies. He sent me a number of his own publications calling for a more rational world order. When I was lecturing at the University of Arizona at Tempe, we arranged to meet. At breakfast, he explained that he had served in the German army during World War II and he felt so guilty and distressed about what had happened to his country under Hitler that he married a Dutch girl, and they emigrated to the United States.
One of the classes I was to address that morning was a class in psychology. I persuaded the reluctant Alfred to join me. I suggested we explore why we would have killed each other on sight during the war, and what had caused our changes of mind and heart so that now we shared the same goals. The students were spellbound. Bauer compared German Field Marshal von Moltke’s faith in the law of force with the opposite reasoning of Professor Johann Kaspar Bluntschli of Heidelberg, who believed that humankind could only be saved by the force of law. Alfred was quite impressed that I was familiar with those contrasting views, particularly since his support of the Bluntschli position had gotten him into trouble with his Prussian teachers.
Dr. Bauer informed me that he had just retired from his practice of medicine. He objected to the governmental bureaucracy that made it difficult for doctors to give patients the treatment and time they deserved. He considered it the duty of a citizen to protest against misguided governmental actions. He was convinced that advancing the law of peace was the best way to save human life.
Not long thereafter, I was lecturing in Seattle and Dr. Bauer invited my wife and I to join him and his wife at his home for dinner. He showed us a beautiful family album that he had assembled. As he slowly turned the pages, I spotted the photo of a soldier in SS uniform. He noticed my raised eyebrow. He explained that it was his brother, who had died on the Russian front. He went on to elaborate. Their father was a loyal German, veteran of the First World War, who accepted the Nazi doctrine. He was disappointed when his sons failed to respond when the Nazi recruiting officer visited their town. The boys didn’t want to make their father unhappy so, the following day, they ran to the next town to sign on. Alfred landed in the Medical corps, his brother in the SS. Alfred seemed ashamed and apologetic.
As a Prosecutor of leading Nazi criminals, my biggest disappointment was the total absence of any remorse on the part of mass murderers. The only Germans I ever met who expressed any regret were those who had done nothing to be ashamed of. Alfred died shortly after our visit. He had sent me a roll of a thousand stick-on labels saying, “International Law, International Courts, International Enforcement, for the Planethood Age.” I pasted one on each of my outgoing letters for years, and have only a few left as a memento. His wife sent me tapes of the very dignified funeral service. She also told me that her late husband had been very touched when I gave him one of my books, inscribed, “From your friend Ben.” She said he cherished the inscription as though it were an absolution. I was proud to call him my friend.