Editor’s note: Holocaust survivor and retired University of Michigan professor Irene Butter recently told her story to Community High School students during a visit to the school. Tracy Rosewarne’s class had read the book “Night” and also used Butter’s talk to work on “PERSPECTIVES: A Glimpse Inside,” a multi-media project that was shared at the school’s Festival of Arts, Letters and Science Night. This article is reprinted with permission from The Communicator. To view photos and a student-produced video of this event, please visit The Communicator site.
By Hilary Burch
In the 1990s, Irene Butter traveled to Europe with her family. They visited Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in Germany. This was not Butter’s first time there. At age 13, during the latter half of World War II, Butter was an inmate in the camp.
“I had a very happy life until 1937,” Butter told students at Community High School during a recent visit to the school. Butter was born in Berlin into a comfortable, middle-class family. “If I asked my parents about their identity, first they would say they were German, and second they would say Jewish.”
In 1933, Hitler came into power. “The writing was on the wall,” Butter said. “My grandfather who owned a bank was no longer allowed to keep his job.” Since Butter’s father was an associate of the bank, he was also out of work. He went to Holland and found a job at American Express in Amsterdam.
“That was the first disruption of my childhood,” Butter said. The separation of the family was tough, and she watched it wear on her mother. Butter was eager to be reunited with her father, but that meant leaving her grandparents, and all friends behind. Butter and her brother enrolled in Dutch schools and quickly learned the language.
However, the comfort of a home in a safe place could not last forever. “Everything was fine until two years later when the Nazis invaded the Netherlands,” she said. In 1940, helicopters were landing and fighting began. Butter was 10 years old.
Life changes for her family
Hitler’s persecution was gradual in the Netherlands. Jews could not go to the cinema, the swimming pool, the park. Public transportation was off limits. Jews had an 8 p.m. curfew. Association with non-Jewish people was not allowed. Groceries could only be purchased after 3 p.m. “During a war there are food shortages. There is not much left by three in the afternoon,” she said.
Butter and her brother were expelled from their public school. She recalls fewer and fewer kids showing up to their new school daily due to deportation. “Eventually, it became our turn,” she said.
It was a hot day in June. “Our mother told us to wear a lot of clothing,” Butter said. What they could bring was limited. After Butter’s whole neighborhood was marched to a big square, they were loaded into an enormous cattle car. In the car, there were about 67 people–no water, no food, no toilet, no room. Butter spent about eight hours on the train, and she almost feels lucky. “I know that many Jews who were deported spent days and days locked up in cattle cars,” she said.
The train arrived in Westerbork, a transit camp in Holland. Barracks and jobs were assigned. Adults had various labor duties; children had nothing. “There was utter boredom,” Butter said. “We didn’t have books or toys, paper and crayons, anything”. Food was scarce. Butter was 12 years old.
A transit camp has its name for a reason. Every Saturday night, a train would arrive in Westerbork. “It passed a gloom over the entire camp,” Butter said. It would sit until Monday evening, when it would leave for Auschwitz, full of those who had been selected. “The essence of life in Westerbork was figuring how to prevent yourself from getting on that train,” Butter said. Many did not escape. “There was always somebody you knew who was going on that train. You would spend the rest of the night together. You would walk them to the train, and you had to say goodbye.”
Eventually, Butter and her family left Westerbork as well. Butter’s father had a contact in Switzerland who issued the family Ecuadorian passport pictures. The Swiss were willing to exchange Jews with passports for American citizenship.
One day, Butter’s family got some mail. “I always called this the first miracle. We didn’t get any mail in Westerbork, but the passports got forwarded (to us.) We were no longer eligible to get on the train,” Butter said.
Because of their passports, Butter’s family was sent to Bergen-Belsen, a ‘privileged’ camp for those who would be exchanged. “We knew this was not a better camp,” Butter said. It was heavy labor for the adults, and chores for the children. Each day the Nazis would line everyone up for roll call. Standing was required until the correct number of people was reached, which sometimes took up to eight hours. There was no moving, no talking.
“Sometimes I see children in my neighborhood sitting on the ground at the bus stop, and I remember standing for all of those hours. It was a form of torture,” Butter said. “We weren’t even allowed to sit on the ground.”
After roughly a year in Bergen-Belsen, anyone with a South American passport was to report to a physician for screening. At this point, Butter’s mother was too weak to make it to see him, but Butter and her brother continued on and got their names checked off the list. Later, when Butter’s father had his name checked off, the doctor passed Butter’s mother as well. The next day they would get on the train and be exchanged. The family prepared to leave Bergen-Belsen.
The following day, a train indeed arrived – a Red Cross train. The family boarded, and they were on their way to Switzerland.
More tragedy as family continues journey
Along with the hope their travel brought, it also brought terror. “The second night on the train was the most tragic of my life,” Butter said. “My father died on that train, and we had no choice but to go on with the journey. We were so close to freedom.”
Upon arrival, Butter’s mother and brother were hospitalized. Butter recalls the Swiss being unprepared to see the inmates. “Justifiably, they were afraid of the diseases we carried,” she said. Things like typhoid fever and dysentery were prevalent. Those who were not hospitalized were housed in a horse stable. “What a strange thing, to survive a concentration camp and be put up in a horse stable,” Butter said.
This solution was temporary. Those who had not been hospitalized were not allowed to stay in Switzerland, as they were stateless; the passports were fake. “When you’re stateless, you have no legal right to live anywhere in the world. We weren’t even refugees. We were displaced persons,” Butter said.
Butter was sent to a displaced person’s camp in Algiers, North Africa. “The Swiss separated me from my family. The Nazis had never done that,” Butter said. “Children (in the camp) could live with their families, but I didn’t have a family to live with.”
During her time in Algiers, Butter had no connection to her mother or brother until she eventually received a telegram informing her that they were well.
After Algiers, Butter arrived in America, before her mother and brother. Her extended family filed affidavits for a move to New York City. Upon her arrival, Butter learned the rules of living in the United States. “ ‘Now you’re here and you have to start a new life. You have to forget. You have to forget the past and not talk about it,’ ” Butter’s family said. She remembers this as a mixed blessing.
After completing high school and attending Queens College in New York, Butter met her husband at Duke University while pursuing a PhD in economics. From there, they started a family. In 1962 the Butters moved to Ann Arbor, where she taught at the University of Michigan for 36 years. “I had a very rich life after the Holocaust,” she said.
Now in her retirement, Butter likes to go fishing. She is working on a movie about social injustice called “Never a Bystander.” She attends survivor conferences. At age 80, she considers herself an American, but still recalls the Holocaust.
“The early part of my life was difficult,” Butter said. “The hardest part was learning to cope with death.”
Hilary Burch writes for The Communicator, the Community High School student-run print and online newspaper.