Starting a New Life

Benjamin B. Ferencz

The war was over. It was time for me to try to seek a new life. By that time, Gert and I had known each other for about ten years. Having been raised in poverty and having endured the divorce of my poor parents, I always felt that I could not ask anyone to marry me until I was able to support a family. There were about ten million soldiers recently arrived back in the United States, and they were all looking for a job. I was one of them. I had a Harvard law degree and was admitted to practice law in New York, but for the previous three years of my life, I had done nothing to prepare me for any useful civilian role in the field of law. One day, while strolling along Fifth Avenue in New York City, I had a chance encounter of an old Harvard Law School friend, Murray Gartner, who, on graduation, had obtained an appointment as a Law Clerk to Justice Robert M. Jackson of the U.S. Supreme Court. Jackson had taken leave to serve as Chief U.S. Prosecutor at Nuremberg. In the conversation, I described my army experiences working on war crimes, and thought no more of the subject.

It came as a surprise when, shortly thereafter, I received a telegram from the Pentagon which began with “Dear Sir.” No one in the army had ever called me “Sir” before. I was invited to come to Washington, at government expense, to be interviewed for possible employment. Was it fate at work?

When I arrived at the War Department, I was greeted by a feisty Lt. Colonel named David Marcus, who said, cheerfully, “Call me Mickey.” There was an acute shortage of lawyers who knew anything about war crimes trials, and the army was desperate. “Benny,” he said earnestly, “we want you to go back to Germany. We’ll make you a Colonel.” I thought he was kidding. I replied that the only time I would go back under military command would be if our country declared war on Germany again and we were losing. Mickey made a counter-offer. He offered me a “simulated rank” equivalent to a full Colonel with all of its privileges, yet I could remain a civilian employee who could quit at any time. He was a good salesman.

The only “girlfriend” I had was Gertrude, and I felt strongly that we had much in common and she would make a fine partner. I knew her father, Sam Fried, who was the brother of my stepmother, whom he frequently visited. Sam, formerly known as Shulem Fried, was Jewish tailor from Transylvania. Around 1923, he had scraped up enough money to buy one ticket to the United States to seek his fortune in “Der Goldene Medina”—the golden land of promise. In 1936, Shulem came back to visit his family in Satu-Mare, Romania. His cautious and religious wife was not ready to uproot herself and her two children to depart for a strange and distant land. On his wife’s urging, Shulem took his 16-year old daughter Gizi and they sailed to New York together, hoping that the other family members would soon follow. They disembarked from an old Polish liner, the “Batory” which docked on August 1, 1936. Shulem was now called Sam, which was an abbreviation of Samuel, which may have been a transliteration from his Yiddish name. Gizi, being a child of superior intelligence, simply called him Papa.

As soon as I had been employed by the War Department, I phoned Gertrude, who had been patiently waiting for me all these years, and asked her how she would like to go to Europe for a brief honeymoon. “Oh,” she exclaimed, “this is so sudden. I’d love it!” I took the job. We were married in Tanta Chava’s living room. Only a few family members were present. (The rabbi who performed the ceremony also happened to be the Chaplain for Sing Sing Prison.) I saw the Army’s offer as a chance to celebrate a joyous honeymoon and balance some of the injustices of having been abused for three years by officers who insisted that “rank has its privileges.” I would discover, as I often did in life, that things don’t always work out as planned. My wife and I would return from our “European honeymoon” some ten years later with our four children born in Nuremberg. But that’s another story.