By Emily VanEcko
On Wednesday January 31st students in the AP Human Geography class went on a field trip to the Clinton Library to hear the holocaust survivor, Dr. Irene Butter, speak of her life.
Irene Butter is the daughter of John and Gertrude Hasenberg of Berlin, Germany. Her father was a banker, as was her grandfather. The family practiced Reformed Judaism, but had assimilated into German culture and considered themselves primarily German. Irene had a very happy early childhood throughout her schooling in Berlin and she was very close to her father.
However, Irene and her family were greatly impacted by the German invasion of Holland in May 1940. Ms. Butter was expelled from school and entered a Jewish school for children with all Jewish teachers. Discrimination of Jews had just started to spread across Europe, and they were barred from public places, not allowed on public transportation, restricted to certain hours for store purchases, forced to walk everywhere, and had to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothing. Anticipating what was to follow, Mrs. Butter’s father initiated efforts to obtain a foreign passport or visa from contacts in Sweden.
In a roundup of Jews in June 1943, Mrs. Butter and her family were given ten minutes to pack before they were transported on trucks to a train station before being forced into cattle cars to travel to the transit camp, Westerbork. There they lived in barracks witnessing the weekly departures to Auschwitz. Dr. Butter talked about the horrific conditions she had to endure like malnourishment, disease, and horrible hygiene conditions. While at Westerbork, the documents Mrs. Butter’s father had solicited arrived in the form of Ecuadorian passports or visas; Mrs. Butter isn’t certain which. These documents prevented their deportation to Auschwitz and instead they were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in February 1944. On their way to the new camp they had hope that it would be better and less harsh than their previous one.
At Bergen-Belsen the family stayed together while being housed in special barracks for those with foreign papers. The intent was to exchange individuals held in those barracks for German nationals being held by other countries. Conditions at Bergen-Belsen were unexpectedly worse than the previous camp. Sleeping facilities were wooden bunk beds, three tiers high – two people per bunk. Food was scarce and sanitary conditions were extremely poor. Mrs. Butter’s father was required to do hard manual labor. A brief contact was made with Anne Frank who was in an adjacent section of the camp when she handed off clothes to the girl who only had a blanket to clothe her body.
There was a count to see all the people who were healthy enough to trade for prisoners of war. She and her brother went and got verified for transport during the day. Later that night when her father returned from his daily labor and he was too tired to walk, the children insisted that he get checked by the doctor. So Dr. Butter got dressed and half-carried her father to the doctor’s office where the doctor mistook Irene for her father’s wife. He gave all four the passes they needed for the family to stay together. To this day she does not know if the doctor was trying to help her family stay together, or if he truly did mistake her for her mother.
In January 1945, Mrs. Butter and her family were selected for the exchange of foreign nationals. They took a four-day train ride to Switzerland in which the health of her parents diminished due to the harsh conditions. Mrs. Butter’s father also died and his body was left on a bench at the railroad station of Biberach, Germany. She believes her father died from malnutrition and the effects of internal injuries resulting from beatings received while at Bergen-Belsen. Her mother was still unconscious when he passed. Upon arrival in Switzerland, the exchange took place and, thereafter, her mother and brother were taken to a hospital. Dr. Butter, who was only 14-years-old at this time, was sent to a DP (Displaced Persons) camp in Algiers, North Africa. There she was able to thrive and regain her emotional and physical strength. This was her first separation from her family and it was incredibly challenging for her.
Through the assistance of relatives in the United States, Mrs. Butter was able to come to America in December 1945. Her mother and brother followed about a year later. She resumed her schooling and with a scholarship was able to go to a university and then pursue a Ph.D. in economics; she graduated as the only woman in her class.
Today she is living with the memories of her scarring childhood but is also finding ways to create peace. She goes around the country speaking to young children, and has created a organization that works hard to promote peace. She is the co-founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Medal & Lecture series at the University of Michigan, and one of the founders of Zeitouna, an Arab/Jewish Women’s Dialogue group in Ann Arbor.
Her biggest message to future generations is that it is your choice to be an enemy or to not be. Her goal is that children in the upcoming generation will never repeat history but instead learn from the violence of the past.
In Little Rock, at the Clinton Center there is a sapling from the only tree Anne Frank could see from her window. The memorial is there to remind us to choose peace and not repeat history.