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Holocaust survivor shares story, encourages Concord High students to fight for justice

Last modified: 5/23/2013 2:12:01 PM
When Irene Butter came to America in 1945, family and friends told her to start a new life and to never speak about her past.

For the next 30 years, Butter, a Holocaust survivor, listened to that advice. She kept inside vivid memories of a train that arrived at a transit camp every Saturday afternoon to take hundreds of Jews to Auschwitz. She kept inside the feeling of perpetual raw hunger that came from days without food. She kept inside memories of the day she watched as her father’s body was taken off a train just days before the family reached freedom in Switzerland.

“For three decades, I didn’t speak,” Butter, 82, told Concord High School students yesterday afternoon.

But in 1981, she attended the first gathering of Holocaust survivors in Israel. The survivors, from dozens of countries, all met in a giant stadium. Many of them didn’t even

speak the same languages, but coming together was an emotional moment that helped Butter, and likely many others, begin to open up.

“It was an unforgettable experience,” she said.

Butter, who lives in Michigan, shared her story of growing up in Nazi Germany, living in the concentration camps, and her escape to freedom with students yesterday afternoon. She then took their questions and left them with two pieces of advice: Never be a bystander, and know that even the darkest tragedy can be overcome.

Her visit was part of a trip to Concord for a speech last night at the University of New Hampshire School of Law about Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg, a University of Michigan graduate, was a Swedish diplomat credited with saving 100,000 Hungarian Jews. Butter, a professor emerita of public health at the Michigan university, helped establish a program in his name that honors humanitarian work.

Rights stripped away

As Butter describes it, the first six years of her life were filled with nothing but joy. She lived in Berlin with her older brother, parents and grandparents. Her father was a partner at a bank owned by her grandfather. But the Nazis began stripping rights from the Jews as their power grew, including taking the bank from her father. The family moved to Amsterdam in 1937, where her father found a new job, but her grandparents stayed behind in Germany.

Life in Amsterdam was good until the Nazis invaded in 1940. Jews were prohibited from going to public places, their bicycles were taken away and they couldn’t use public transportation. They couldn’t go shopping until 3 p.m. each day, and with increasing food rations, there was little food left at that time. Children were put in special schools, and fewer and fewer students filled the seats each day as Jews were sent to concentration camps.

When deportation began, many families went into hiding, including the family of Anne Frank, who Butter knew briefly. But Butter’s father had come up with an alternative solution: He knew a family that had obtained false Ecuadorian passports from Sweden. He arranged to do the same, but the passports were slow to arrive. In the summer of 1943, Butter’s family was sent to Westerbork, a transit camp in Holland. The ride to the camp was an eight-hour trip in cattle cars with no food, fresh air or bathrooms. The experience was miserable, Butter said, but eight hours was far less than the time many Jews spent in similar conditions.

‘A symbol of sadness’

Life in the camp was boring. Butter, 12 at the time, was not subject to hard labor. But she spent her days cleaning the barracks, doing laundry, taking care of other children and often standing for hours during roll call.

One Concord High School student asked whether she had dreams of what her life would be like when she left the camp.

“Every night I went to sleep hoping that I would wake up the next morning,” she told them.

One of her most vivid memories is of a long train that would arrive every Saturday. It would sit there until Monday, spanning the entire length of the camp, while the Jews waited for what they knew was coming. No matter where Butter went in the camp, she could always see the train. Finally, on Monday nights, the Nazis would turn on all the lights in the barracks and call out a list of names. Those people were going to Auschwitz.

Even today, trains bring back those vivid memories to Butter.

“Trains for me have always been a symbol of separation, a symbol of sadness, a symbol of death, really,” she said.

About three to four months into their stay in Westerbork, the passports her father requested arrived. The family was then sent to Bergen-Belsen, a holding camp in Germany for people with papers who might later be used to exchange for German foreign nationals being held in other countries.

“It’s like we were commodities that would be exchanged,” she said.

The camp was crowded, filthy and full of diseases. Her father and brother did hard labor, while her mother became ill. Food each day was a 2-inch-wide piece of bread and a bowl of turnip and water soup.

“We don’t have a word in our vocabulary that describes hunger,” she told the students. True hunger is a painful, ever-present feeling that is impossible to comprehend. When she was finally freed several years later and went to Algeria, she remembers eating so many hamburgers on the boat ride out of Europe that she almost got sick. But she couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw someone throw the extra burgers into the water.

“That was a crime to me,” she said.

Her family spent a year in those barren, barely survivable conditions until one day they were selected with 300 others for exchange. After passing medical examinations, her family boarded Red Cross trains for a four-day journey to Switzerland. They were “so close to freedom” when, on day two of the journey, Butter’s father died. Butter remembers feeling numb as his body was wrapped in coats and removed from the train.

Building a new life

Once in Switzerland, she couldn’t stay with her brother and mother, who were hospitalized. She instead went to a displaced persons camp in Algeria. There, she had three meals a day and clean sheets to sleep in. She learned a bit of English as she waited for papers to move to the United States. In late 1945 she emigrated to New York City, where her mother and brother joined her six months later, a year and a half after she’d last seen them.

In America, she didn’t speak about her past, not even with her mother and brother. In a way, she said, it might have been hard to try and cope with the past while trying to build a new life. She graduated from Queens College in 1953, then went on to earn a doctorate from Duke University, where she met her now-husband of 56 years, Charles Butter.

But slowly, surely, after many years she began to acknowledge and discuss her past. She first spoke publicly about it to one of her daughter’s junior high classes when her daughter did a speech on the subject. Then in 1984, she helped start the Wallenberg Medal and Lecture program at the University of Michigan to honor Raoul Wallenberg, which gave her more opportunities to speak about the Holocaust.

In 1991, at the urging of her children and nieces and nephews, Butter and her brother returned to Europe, visiting the site of Bergen-Belsen and their father’s grave. Ten years ago, she also helped found the Zeitouna Project, which is a group of Jewish and Palestinian women who get together to promote understanding.

Butter’s work to promote peace was a central message she gave to students. Whenever possible, don’t stand by where an injustice is occurring, she told them.

“I think that’s kind of the theme of my life,” she said. “My core is to fight for justice.”

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


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