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Holocaust survivor to give talk at UNH School of Law

The Concord community will have a unique opportunity to learn about the Holocaust tomorrow night when survivor Irene Butter gives a talk at UNH School of Law.

Butter, now in her 80s, was a young girl when her family moved from Germany to Amsterdam in 1937 as Nazis in their home country were taking increasingly radical measures against the Jews. Life became more and more difficult for the Butters until they were eventually taken to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1944. Before that, however, her father had obtained foreign papers from the Swedish government, which kept the family in special barracks. After nearly a year at the camp, her family was released in exchange for foreign nationals in 1945. Her father died on the journey from the camp to Switzerland, but she, her mother and brother eventually made it safely to the United States.

Butter will share these experiences tomorrow night, but the main focus of her talk will be Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat credited with saving nearly 100,000 Jews in Budapest as the war was coming to a close. The talk, which begins at 7 p.m., is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. It is sponsored by the University of Michigan Club of New Hampshire, the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice, and the Warren B. Rudman Center for Justice, Leadership and Public Policy. Butter will also speak earlier in the day to Concord High School students.

Wallenberg is an alumnus of the University of Michigan, which is celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth this year. Butter is a professor emerita of public health at the university, and a longtime member of the school’s Wallenberg Executive Committee, which awards a medal of honor for outstanding humanitarianism each year. Through both her work on the committee and by sharing her own story, Butter has been actively promoting Holocaust awareness for decades.

Although the primary purpose of her visit is the Wallenberg talk at the law school, Butter was quickly on board when asked to speak with Concord High students, said Jonathan Lax, president of the University of Michigan Club of New Hampshire.

“She’s a . . . survivor who feels strongly about her obligation to teach about the Holocaust,” he said, adding that her typical response is “if a school group invites me, I have to do it.”

Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, arrived in Budapest in 1944 after receiving an offer from the American War Refugee Board to help protect the Jews. Throughout the next year, he gave thousands of Jews diplomatic protection through creative means, including hiring them to work in his office, inventing a special passport and creating “safe houses” where the persecuted could stay. He even bribed and negotiated with the Nazis to call off a final assault as Hitler’s defeat was becoming imminent.

His fate, however, remains unknown. As the war was ending in early 1945, Wallenberg was taken by Soviet troops and never heard from again. He was the second person ever, behind Winston Churchill, to be named an honorary U.S. citizen. In 2012, he was posthumously awarded a Congressional Gold Medal.

Butter was not directly saved by Wallenberg’s efforts, but the diplomatic papers her family received from Sweden likely aided in her family’s release from Bergen-Belsen. Her personal experiences and connection with the University of Michigan prompted her to help form the Wallenberg Medal and Lecture Series.

The Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Social Justice is co-sponsoring the event because Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in the U.S. Congress, was saved by Wallenberg’s efforts. His daughter and president of the Lantos Foundation, Katrina Lantos Swett, will also speak at the event.

(Kathleen Ronayne can be reached at 369-3309 or or on Twitter at @kronayne.)

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