Returning to New York in 1956

Benjamin B. Ferencz

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.