A Survivor Bears Witness
When she speaks to high school students about her past, SPH Professor Emeritus Irene Butter begins by telling them about her childhood in Berlin in the 1930s. Life was good, she says, until the Nazis took power and began demeaning the Jews. “They called us names. They said we were pigs, that we were cockroaches.” Butter pauses and looks out at her teenaged audience. “I want to show you some pictures of my family,” she says quietly, “and you will see that we were none of these things.” She touches a computer, and the screen above her fills with black-and-white photographs of Irene and her brother as toddlers, and of their smiling parents and grandparents. The students utter a collective gasp. The images are beautiful.
Butter goes on to describe how she and her family left Germany in 1937 and moved to Amsterdam, how the Nazis then invaded that country, and she and her parents and brother lived in terror. In 1944, Nazis arrested the family and sent them to a concentration camp in the Netherlands and from there to Bergen- Belsen, where hunger and death, Butter recalls, were “our constant torture.”
It was the same path that another German-Jewish family, the Franks, also followed. In Bergen-Belsen, Butter briefly crossed paths with Anne Frank. Both girls were in their mid-teens.
Butter survived the war, as did her mother and brother. But her father died shortly after the family was released from Bergen-Belsen, on what Butter says is still “one of the saddest days of my life.” She and her mother and brother emigrated to the United States, where relatives told them to “forget everything. You are starting a new life, you must never talk about it again.” For 40 years, Butter did just that. She married, had children, earned a Ph.D. in economics, and taught at SPH for over 30 years.
Then one day her daughter asked her to take part in a school presentation about the Holocaust. Butter agreed, and found her voice. She has been talking to young people ever since. It’s a way of making it “real” for them, she says. Students tell her they plan to pass her story on to their own children and grandchildren, “and they’re only 12!” Butter says. “I’m very much moved by the feedback I get from the students.”
In 1984, Butter helped found the Wallenberg lecture and medal at the University of Michigan. The annual program honors Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish citizen who saved countless Hungarian Jews from death in World War II, and who later vanished into the Soviet gulag. Wallenberg studied architecture at UM in the 1930s.
Past Wallenberg honorees include Elie Wiesel, the Dalai Lama, and Miep Gies, who helped sustain Anne Frank and her family in hiding.
Like her talks to high school students, Butter believes the Wallenberg lecture and medal serve as a “role model. The theme of the Wallenberg endowment is ‘one person can make a difference.’ I consider this a really important message, because the problems are so huge, and we as individuals are so small, and so sometimes we think, well, it’s too gigantic, I can’t even touch it. And that’s not really the case.”
Never a Bystander
SPH alumna Evelyn Neuhaus, MPH ’72, is filming a documentary, Never a Bystander, about Holocaust survivor Irene Butter and her efforts to educate and inspire future generations. The film focuses on two themes: Butter’s decision to live as a survivor and not as a victim, and her conviction that human beings must not be bystanders to injustice and suffering. “By her example, Irene shows how it is possible to live a full and engaged life after surviving unimaginable trauma,” Neuhaus says. “We all have much to learn from her.” Neuhaus spent 33 years working in health care planning and marketing in the Ann Arbor area before retiring. Now she devotes her energies to film—“something I have always loved.”