Irene Butter never planned to stand in front of an audience and share the story of her childhood experience of surviving the Holocaust.
On her first night in America -- Christmas Eve 1945 -- the instructions Butter's relatives gave her would silence her from talking about that part of her life for four decades.
"They said, 'Now you're finally in America, you're going to start a new life,'" Butter recounted. "'You have to forget about the past and don't ever talk about it.'"
Butter not only shared the story of her life with an audience Jan. 31 at the Clinton Presidential Center, but also spoke about her newly published memoir, Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope, My True Story, which will be released April 7.
Butter's appearance was partly in observation of Tu BiShvat, the Jewish "New Year for trees," which ended Jan. 31.
The Clinton Presidential Center is one of 11 locations in the United States to have applied for and been awarded a white horse chestnut sapling taken from the only tree visible to Anne Frank during the two years she spent in hiding in the Secret Annex in Amsterdam, Holland. The sapling is now part of the Anne Frank installation that was dedicated on the grounds of the center in 2015.
Butter opened her talk with an explanation of the Holocaust's relevance, which she said was stronger now more than several decades ago, and a call to action.
"Just what's going on in the world today and in our own country remind us how vigilant we must be to try to prevent the repercussions of authoritarianism and dictatorship," Butter said. "We cannot let it happen again.
"Everyone can act, whether it's a big step or a small step. Everything you do matters, no matter how small. And if you don't act, if you decide to be passive and silent and a bystander, that also matters."
Butter, who was Irene Hasenberg before she married, drew parallels between her life and that of Anne Frank, who died in the Bergen-Belsen death camp in 1945 and wrote the diary that would be translated into 70 languages and sold in more than 60 countries.
Butter and Frank had lived in the same neighborhood, and Frank had been the same age as Butter's brother, Werner. Although they didn't attend the same school, they had mutual friends.
She also compared the environment she grew up in during the 1930s and 1940s to that of today.
"We have ethnic cleansing, we have persecution, we have deportation, we have breaking up [of] families," Butter said. "We have deprivation of basic human rights -- children who don't have food and medical care. ... That shouldn't have happened then and it certainly shouldn't happen again now."
Butter, her mother, Gertrude, and brother joined her father, John, in Amsterdam when she was 7, where he had moved a few months earlier after being forced out of the bank he and Butter's grandfather co-owned when Germany came under Nazi occupation in 1933.
The Netherlands would come under Nazi rule in May 1940 after days of attack, and Jews saw their rights and dignity stripped away in layers. Initially prohibited from public buildings such as museums and movie theaters, Jews were told not to interact with non-Jews. Then came the yellow Jewish star they were required to wear to single them out. Their bicycles confiscated, Jews could then travel only to where they could walk. Then came deportation.
"To be in the Jewish school [at that time] was a sad experience, because time after time more seats in the class were no longer occupied," Butter said. "People had the choice: They would make the decision like the Frank family and go into hiding, or they would just hold on until the deportation occurred."
For the Hasenbergs, that day came in June 1943 when they and hundreds of other families "were marched to a big square with all their belongings" before being taken in a cattle car to Camp Westerbork, a transit camp in the Netherlands situated between two sides of railroad tracks.
Despite conditions -- occupants were made to sleep in three-tiered bunk beds with no privacy -- it was a train that arrived at the camp every Saturday that would be "the most serious trauma" at Westerbork.
After seeing the train idling on the tracks throughout the weekend, those who were to board the train headed to death camps in Eastern Europe would be singled out on a list.
"Every Monday [night] you sat in fear waiting for that time when the list was read," Butter said.
Friends and relatives would spend time with those whose names had been called, until the train departed at 4 the next morning.
"We spent those hours and walked them to the train and then there was the moment of saying goodbye, knowing with some certainty that you would probably never see each other again," Butter said. "So trains continued to have this symbolic meaning to me. They were a symbol of separation. They were a symbol of death."
The family had obtained Ecuadorean passports, which allowed them to be exchanged for German citizens imprisoned in Switzerland. Butter's family would be sent as "exchange Jews" to the Bergen-Belsen death camp, where unclean conditions, a six-and-a-half day workweek and daily roll call where prisoners were forced to stand quietly for hours took their toll.
Butter would wake up and "find people who had died during the night."
It was also where she would briefly encounter Frank across a fence.
"Margot [Anne Frank's sister] was so sick she couldn't get up," Butter said. "That's what Anne said. 'She's too sick, she can't.'" Butter attempted to pass clothing to Anne, without success, and Butter didn't see her again.
Butter's mother had been sick for months, she said, and her father's health had deteriorated quickly when the family was put on a train to Switzerland.
Two days after boarding the train, her father died. The train was stopped and his body was left on a bench at a Biberach, Germany, train station.
"We were so close to freedom," Butter said. "He had done everything possible to save his family ... and I said [to him], 'You know, we're very close to Switzerland and then we'll be free,' and he said, 'I won't make it.' I think that's the worst memory I have."
Their misfortunes deepened, as her mother and brother were hospitalized with illness and the Ecuadorean passports they had secured turned out to be false, barring them from later applying for Ecuadorean citizenship.
Butter was sent to Algeria, North Africa, to a refugee camp led by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, what she called a "precursor" of the United Nations. It would be several months before she received word that Gertrude and Werner had survived, and another six months after Butter arrived in the United States that the three would reunite there.
In the United States, Butter returned to school, graduating high school and then college before meeting her husband, Charles Butter, at Duke University. There the couple earned doctorates -- Irene's is in economics -- and eventually the couple established themselves as professors at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where they raised their son and daughter. Each taught for more than 35 years before retiring.
There were several factors behind Butter's eventual decision to speak to what would become hundreds of audiences over a span of more than 30 years.
In the 1980s, her daughter, who was in middle school at the time, took a public speaking course. Her chosen topic for an hourlong talk: "Anti-Semitism: Hitler's Conquest of Europe and the Concentration Camps." Butter's daughter asked her mother to be her model, and Butter ended up giving a 15-minute talk as part of her daughter's presentation.
She also was asked to participate in a panel that combined with an Anne Frank photo exhibition that was touring the country.
"In preparation for my participation in the panel I thought, 'Gee, you know, six million Jews were murdered and here I am. ... I can't stay silent any longer.'"
She also remembered being moved by a quotation from holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, who had survived the camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
"He basically said that if you were there -- if you heard the silence of the dead -- then you have an obligation to provide testimony and to speak about it. Otherwise the dead will die twice, he said. It really struck me."
Butter co-founded the Raoul Wallenberg Medal and Lecture series at the University of Michigan, whose recipients include philosopher and Holocaust survivor Agnes Heller, politician and nonviolent leader Aung San Suu Kyi and human and civil rights activist Desmond Tutu. Wallenberg was a student at the university in the 1930s, according to Butter, and Wiesel was the first medal recipient in 1990.
Butter also co-founded Zeitouna, an Ann Arbor-based group of six Palestinian and six Jewish women who have met in one another's homes for more than 15 years "doing dialogue and refusing to be enemies."
"That's the motto, 'refusing to be enemies,'" Butter said. "When the world tells us we should be enemies, but we refuse to do that."
Butter said her talks at schools and colleges since the 1980s have been "the enrichment of my life." She said she found that she could connect with students by telling her story.
"They don't have to be Jewish," Butter said. "I got a letter, as an example, from a boy in a school where I talked, and he said, 'This year I've had to move eight times. You can understand that.'"
Butter has an extensive collection of artwork, letters and other forms of expression from children who have heard her speak. She had planned on compiling the correspondence into a book when her friend and former student Kris Holloway and Holloway's husband, John Bidwell, encouraged her to instead write down the story of her life.
"They said, 'You really have to write your memoir. That's the important thing to do,'" Butter said.
She now has a website, irenebutter.com, where she keeps some of the student responses to her talks. Combined with the publication of her memoir, Butter called it "the best of both worlds."
"It really was a fantastic opportunity, a very iterate process of really being able to have her explain some scenes, and then we were able to build on them and she could get back to us as to whether they were working or not," Bidwell said. "Our skill sets worked very well to come together with Irene [who] put it together ... plus we work well together. There's a lot of trust."
In addition to speaking to an audience of some 400 students from the Little Rock area earlier in the day, Butter also spoke to a group of students Thursday. Marianne Tettlebaum, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Arkansas, said for Butter to share her story was "an incredible act of social justice."
"It reminds people [of] the terrible consequences of hatred and intolerance," Tettlebaum said. "Her work for peace, her work for understanding is ... as important as a legacy of the Holocaust -- that the Holocaust showed us what happens when there is intolerance and a lack of understanding and we focus more on enemies rather than what we have in common. I think that Dr. Butter's work is crucial in providing the kind of education that will hopefully help us to avoid these kinds of horrible events in the future.
"As the [Holocaust] gets further and further away the number of survivors is decreasing. So to be able to hear the story of a Holocaust survivor directly from a survivor, it's something that's increasingly rare and it's just an incredible opportunity."
Irene Butter speaks to an audience of school-age children from the Little Rock area Jan. 31 at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.
Religion on 02/10/2018
Print Headline: Never again