Holocaust survivor shares her experience

Irene Butter, a Holocaust survivor who now lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, recently shared her story with about 600 people.

A MEMORIAL at the Bergen- Belsen death camp. The book follows a survivor’s quest for revenge. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MEMORIAL at the Bergen- Belsen death camp. The book follows a survivor’s quest for revenge.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Irene Butter of Ann Arbor is a tiny woman, bent a little forward by 89 years of living.
On Thursday, Butter, a Holocaust survivor, shared her story with about 600 guests at the Sturges-Young Center for the Arts.
Invited by the Sturgis District Library, the audience heard about Butter's idyllic, privileged childhood. Of being the center of love and attention from grandparents and parents in Berlin, Germany. She had photographs to prove it.
But when Butter was about 12 years old all that changed as Hitler rose in power and took away all that Jewish people held dear — family, businesses and, for many, life.
Butter's father was able to pull strings that saved them from the death camps, but her grandparents weren't so fortunate and died after being transported to a prison camp.
Upon fleeing Germany, Butter, her parents and older brother, lived first in the Netherlands, then were taken to Camp Westerbork in the Netherlands and finally shipped to Camp Bergen-Belsen in Germany.
Before Germany invaded the Netherlands, life was good, Butter said.
When they were moved to the first camp, life was bleak and boring but nothing as bad as the second camp of slave labor, starvation and brutality.
Every Saturday a train rumbled into camp pulling a line of cattle cars. It sat in the middle of all activity, a grim reminder that on Monday it would be taking away many to the death camps.
The names of those to depart was read on Monday. After being relieved over not hearing their own names, the prisoners located family members who where leaving. They spent the last few hours together before they were loaded and taken away. Forever.
The train pulled out on Monday night and the dread of the coming Saturday would settle in on the remaining captives.
"It was a traumatic cycle," Butter said.
Finally Butter's father received passports for Ecuador. Not legitimate passports, but something the Nazis could use for trading. Jews with passports could be traded with the Allies for German prisoners or Germans living in America who were forced back to the Fatherland.
By a miracle, Butter's extremely ill mother was allowed to leave, so the family of four left Camp Bergen-Belsen together. However, two days later her father died.
"He didn't make it to freedom," Butter said.
The audience listened intently to the soft spoken Butter who stood through her entire presentation.
They gasped at the news of her father's death. They applauded when the family had a triumphs.
Butter made it to America first, being the healthiest of the three of them. Family members in New York welcomed her like their own. Following the end of the war, her mother and brother were able to join her.
As she wrapped up the story, Butter asked for questions and finally sat down in a wingback chair provided for her on stage.
One in the audience asked how her family photos survived.
Butter said a non-Jewish neighbor who was a photographer offered to keep them safe. No one would questions photos in her keeping. The she was able to send them to the family following the war.
Another asked if she able to forgive the Nazis for what they did to her family.
"That's a good question," Butter said.
The answer isn't simple, but she had worked through it over the years.
Butter said she has never personally encountered a Nazi, but upon meeting one she would want to know three things:
Did they acknowledged what they had done?
Did they regret it?
Did they made amends?
"Then there is the other side of forgiveness," Butter said. "If you continue to bury the hatred inside yourself it doesn't feel good. It isn't good for you. It isn't good for your health. There is a saying, 'People who forgive are those who want to live in the light and not in the darkness,'" Butter said.
Following the presentation many who bought Butter's memoirs, "Shores Beyond Shores" before they sold out, lined up for an autograph.
Suzanne Keenan of Burr Oak had read "The Diary of Anne Frank" in high school and has remained interested in the subject over the years.
"I am aghust that so many people think it didn't happen," Keenan said.
Aaron Guest of Reading said attended for the sake of his children — so it will never be repeated.
Guest also felt close to her story because his grandfather fought in World War II from Normandy to Berlin and participated in liberation of some death camp.
About 20 years ago Guest traveled to Germany and visited some of those sites.
"Nothing in language can describe what it felt like to go in there," Guest said. "The silence was deafening."
Dan Parker of Coldwater felt an even greater tie Butter's life story. His parents both survived the Holocaust and met following liberation.
"My mother was in the same camp as Irene and deported to the same camp as Irene's grandparents," Parker said.
Mary Thornton of Colon was especially impressed with all that Butter has done in her life following the Holocaust.
Beyond being a long-time economic professor at the University of Michigan, one of Butter's passions is being part of a group of Jewish and Arabic women and "Refusing to be Enemies."
She also spreads the message, "Never be a by-stander — take responsibility for each other," she said.
A peace activists, Butter is also instrumental in the University of Michigan Wallenberg lectures and annual peace awards.
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