Dr. Irene Butter, emeritus professor with the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan, is with us to talk about her book "Shores beyond Shores," about her life growing up in Germany and Holland during the horrible years of the late 1930s and early 1940s. I want to start with your arrival in the United States and tell us a little bit more about your life once you arrived in New York with your mother and your brother.
I did not arrive with my mother and my brother. I came alone. I was separated from family on a train from Bergen-Belsen to Switzerland after being liberated from the camp. My father died on the train, and his remains left in a small town in Germany. Then we arrived in Switzerland a couple of days later. My mother and my brother were so sick that they needed to be hospitalized immediately. The Swiss wouldn't allow me to stay with them. They had too many refugees, and along with a hundred-plus people who also came from Bergen-Belsen, we were sent to North Africa to a refugee camp in Algiers when the war ended. I turned 15 on the ship coming to America, stayed with relatives who I'd never met before. They also were refugees. Life was beautiful and tough at the same time. Coming to America had been my dream the whole year I was in Africa. I didn't have any schooling for three years, so I was very eager to go to school right away. My relatives were very loving and understanding and supportive. Then six months later, my mother and my brother arrived. There was a tremendous housing shortage in New York City, and it took us two years to find an apartment. Only then did we start our life together as a family again. I should mention we arrived homeless and penniless because everything had been taken away from us by the Nazis, which made life difficult at first.
Luckily, there were many opportunities for education or work and finding new friends, so it was a two-sided experience. I got an excellent education at Queens College. I started with the idea of becoming a social worker because so many times in my life, I had been helped and supported by social workers. I thought this would be the right way for me to go, but I didn't find the courses particularly interesting, which doesn't mean the field wasn't exciting, but it didn't attract me in college. I took an economics course. I found that more relevant to my interests because it taught me more about what's fundamental in society, how the economy runs, how fair it is, and how our resources get distributed among people of the population. So I stuck with economics.
When you were studying economics, I believe you met your future husband.
He was also studying at Duke University. I attended Duke to earn my Ph.D., and he was majoring in physiological psychology, and we finished up about the same time. My first job was with the board of governors of the Federal Reserve System. My husband was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health, so we spent three years in that area, started our family, and then came to Michigan and have been here ever since.
At the University, you worked in the School of Public Health. What courses did you teach when you were there?
At that time, there was a new field in the early stages of development called Health Economics about the healthcare system and the many problems that we were facing and how to resolve them. Almost all students are required to take a course in elementary economics. I taught Policy Analysis, and in the 1970s, I became interested in women's health. I taught a class called Race, Gender, Ethnicity and Health, and several other courses. Still, they mostly had to do with my fundamental interests, which have to do with equity, access, equal opportunity, and those kinds of issues.
Also, around this time, you became involved with various organizations on campus. What motivated you to become engaged with the Wallenberg lecture series as well as the Aytuna group? How did you get involved with these two organizations?
It wasn't simultaneous, but I found out at a certain point that Raoul Wallenberg, who was not Jewish, made tremendous sacrifices and taken risks at the end of World War Two. He accepted a position with the Swedish embassy in Budapest, and that was the only place in Europe where a substantial Jewish population still existed. His goal was to save as many Jews as possible from the death camps. I consider him the biggest World War Two hero. He used very inventive tactics. He made up fake Swedish passports to save people and also safe houses where they became Swedish property, and the Nazis were not allowed on those properties. Those were two methods. He also pulled Jews off the trains to Auschwitz, and he was very successful. He saved tens of thousands of Jews from being deported. The sad part is that at the end of the war, the Russians entered Hungary and captured him; he was never seen or heard of again. The irony is that the man who saved so many Jews wasn't able to be rescued himself. It is a very tragic story. I think that's the reason we have the Wallenberg lecture series at the University of Michigan.
I believe Mr. Wallenberg was a student at the University of Michigan at some point during the 1930s?
He was here studying architecture from 1931 to 1935 and then went back and did some architecture. During World War two he worked for a Hungarian trading company and traveled quite a lot within Europe, and that's how he ended up in his position. At a certain point in 1984, I learned about him. There wasn't much information about him until the 1980s. I realized that the University never really acknowledged his heroic deeds. So, with some friends, we started a grassroots group to develop an endowment. It took five years to raise enough money to start a program. After considering several different ways of honoring him, we ended up with an annual lecture in which we would invite an outstanding humanitarian from anywhere in the world whose deeds resembled the courage and the risks taken by Raoul Wallenberg. We have that person come here and receive a medal. The recipient serves as a role model for our community, and the motto on the medal is "one person can make a difference" because of what Wallenberg did almost single-handedly.
Could you give us some of the names of the recipients of the Wallenberg award?
Since we founded the endowment, we have given out 27 medals and are getting ready for the 28th. We have five Nobel Prize winners among the medalists, and they have been extraordinary people from many different walks of life from many different countries in the world, including the Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu. Most recently, one of our volunteer mentors, who became a Nobel Prize winner, is Dr. Denis Mukwege from the Democratic Republic of East Congo, who is an awe-inspiring person. I have had the privilege of welcoming these medalists and getting to know them a little bit during their visits, and it's been very enriching.
Could you also tell us a little bit about your involvement with the Aytuna group? What function does it perform?
It is a group of six Palestinian and six Jewish women here in Ann Arbor who meet every other week in our homes starting with a meal, and then we address complicated topics. We don't talk about the complex issues in the Middle East, and we listen to each other's stories to get to know each other to create safety and trust. I think that was one of our recipes for success to not launch into the conflict but to get to know each other. Our motto is "refusing to be enemies." We've learned so much from each other. Most of us feel that we have transformed our thinking in many ways, and we've been doing this for 16 or 17 years.
One of the things you did recently was to write a beautiful book called "Shores Beyond Shores-- From Holocaust to Hope." What was your motivation to write this book?
When I first came to America, my relatives and I heard from many survivors who came here after the Holocaust. They told me now you're here, you have to start a new life, you have to forget the past, and never talk about it. This attitude led to four decades of silence. The world wasn't ready to hear about the Holocaust for a long time, and so in the 1980s, I began to talk at various events. The first one was with my daughter. She was in middle school, taking a course in public speaking, and at the end of the course, she had to do a speech. The topic she chose was anti-semitism, Hitler's conquest of Europe, and the concentration camps. She came home, and she said, "Mom, will you be my visual aid?" She wanted to use 15 minutes of her one-hour speech and talk about the concentration camps. At first, I was petrified because I had never spoken about it, and I didn't know how students would react, but I couldn't turn her down. That was the first event that went pretty well.
Then in the late 1980s, there was an Anne Frank exhibition that traveled throughout the country, and it came to Detroit. I was invited to participate on a panel, and while I thought about what I would say, it dawned on me that Anne couldn't be here. I was the lucky one to survive, so I had to break the silence. Another influence on me was Elie Wiesel. He was a survivor himself and a strong proponent of a survivor's responsibility to bear witness and to provide testimony to speak and tell the stories. I attended that event in 1987, then I started talking in schools, and I've continued for more than thirty-five years. I recently went to a school in Canton, and they reminded me it was the 20th year that I had come to that school. What motivated me to write the book is that I hope I can still talk for some more years in schools. But when I cannot, there is this book to tell my story. It's increasingly important to tell these stories because we live at a time that many students don't learn about the Holocaust in their history classes. It's terrifying to think that history will repeat itself and that this will come to haunt us again. We need to be involved in the action to defend American values to stamp down hatred and discrimination. We need to do whatever we can so that it won't happen again.
You mentioned in your book a direct quote from Elie Wiesel, "If you were there, if you breathed the air and heard the Silence of the Dead, you must continue to bear witness to prevent the dead from dying again." One of the things I think is fascinating for anyone who reads this book is the vivid portrayal of your life with everything from the sounds to the smells to specific incidents. How were you able to make these memories come alive? How did you access these? Were they always there?
I give a lot of credit to my co-writers. They are very close friends, and we've known each other for a long time. We had numerous hours on Skype where I would tell of an incident or an episode that happened, and then they would ask a lot of questions to get more detail and to get more in-depth about these experiences. Without them, I don't think it would have happened. They helped me a lot. I also have to give credit to the students because whenever I go to a school, I leave time for Q&A, and I've had very penetrating questions from students, which also has helped me. Often the questions will lead to a buried memory that I hadn't thought about in 20 years.
When you did these various Skype interviews and talking to John Bidwell and Chris Holloway, your co-authors, how did you react to going back to this time when they would bring memories up?
It was painful to open wounds and open scars. It took us five years to complete the book, and many times I had to take breaks. I just had to put it aside before going on, but I must add that in the end, I'm pleased that we finished it and that it was a form of liberation to get it published.
The journey of horrors starts for your family around 1936 from your recollection. During the German Olympics, you're going into Berlin and seeing all these red flags, which you categorize as zigzags. (Swastikas) It's hard for us to understand. It feels for the reader, almost like a slow-moving train of degradation for your family. Your father can't work in a bank; you can't go to play in public parks. Can you describe that sense of this constant removal from ordinary life?
I was seven when we left Germany to go to Holland. I was a young child, so it wasn't so apparent to me. I remember one time I was in first grade in Berlin, and one of the students had a birthday party and invited the whole class except one other girl and myself because we were Jewish. One other thing I remember is when the Nazis took my grandfather's Bank. He'd worked all his life to build this Bank, and Jews could no longer own banks like many other businesses and other professions. Life began to change drastically because my father was unemployed, and that's one reason he went to Holland to try to find a job with the American Express company in Amsterdam. For two years, we had a pretty good life in Amsterdam before the Nazi invasion.
Of course, with the Nazi invasion of Holland came more hardship for your family and millions of others throughout the world. One thing that becomes clear is that while you're having various constraints placed upon your family, you're now rounded up and taken to a place called Westerbork. One of the constant themes in your book, Dr. Butter, is the idea of finding food and not eating. These are horrible places, to begin with, but the ongoing struggle to find food seems to be an overwhelming problem. How how did you deal with that?
Even many years later, I haven't found language to describe hunger because we used the word so often. Kids come home from school saying they're starved and go for the cookie jar or something like that. But it's challenging to describe. I think that for the rest of my life, I've had effects. I can't waste anything. I'm very cautious about food, and it's an experience you can't get beyond.
Another thing people need to understand is that, unlike a lot of folks in the Holocaust, you were lucky enough to be with your family, but you're also young, and you're optimistic about the future. How did you hold onto optimism as a family unit with all these horrors? Did you allow yourself to think there's an end to this?
There's something about hope. I don't think I was conscious of it then, but I think there's truth to it. Once you give up hope, you're going to go downhill, whether you know it or not. I was young, and I wanted to live. I had a dream. I used to read these books about Heidi. She was an orphan living with her grandfather in the mountains of Switzerland. She was skiing a lot, and that was my dream. I thought, if I survive, I want to go to Switzerland to learn how to ski. I would see these pictures of snow-covered mountains in front of me. There's been research about this. People who had a purpose or people that had a dream or a goal were much more likely to survive than if you gave up.
Most people can't imagine the horrors you went through. But there were also other evil people you interacted with that weren't all Nazis. They were collaborators. There are people like Mrs. Mandel and others that were cruel and evil in their ways. You told us that it's essential not to forget the past so that we don't repeat something like this. At the same time, how do you get to the point of forgiveness?
It's a complicated question. It's tough to forgive someone when that person is still mistreating you and being cruel. It's more a question of afterward. How do you feel about it? I cannot forgive somebody for what they did to others. I can only forgive what somebody did to me. There's a part of forgiveness that's almost self-serving and selfish because if you have this anger and hatred inside yourself, it can eat you up, it can paralyze you. Then you suffer from not forgiving. Forgiveness helps you get over it, to dismiss the anger and the feelings of hatred. That's one way of dealing with it. But forgiveness is difficult, and I couldn't say if Hitler were alive today, I could forgive him for everything he did. That's more than understandable. You wrote this beautiful book, so what's next for you? Are we going to see a follow-up to this book? Did you ever go skiing in Switzerland?
No, but I want to continue to give talks, particularly to young people, they are the future for one. They're very receptive, at least that's been my experience. I've been so surprised by how students embrace my stories and how I can connect with them. I tell them my story, and then they tell me their stories. We build a bridge of commonality. Everybody has some dark things happening to them in their lives sooner or later. It's been gratifying, and I would hope to continue. What's most important is to transmit specific messages. One of them is never to be a bystander
I'm hoping that students will develop a social conscience and that they will recognize that we're all human beings and made of the same fabric. We need to protect each other and need to stand up for each other to defend each other when necessary. That requires some orientation. If they don't get it at home and they don't get it in school, then I think this is an opportunity for me to do an act of kindness every day. Everybody can make a difference in this world, whether it's a small thing or you can move on to larger goals. But to form the habit of being kind to other people, protest when things are happening that you don't believe in, is essential. It isn't going to happen unless we fight for American values. We must fight for humanity and compassion and equality of human rights and opportunities. I believe it's essential for young people to learn this early in their lives. I wish I could see these students ten years later and see if they still remember, I hope they do.