Irene Butter endured her share of trauma as a Jewish girl growing up in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s — including a few years in the same Amsterdam neighborhood as Anne Frank and a stint in Bergen-Belsen, the concentration camp where Anne died.
But Butter came out of the Holocaust alive, and strong, and dedicated — strong enough to earn a Ph.D. in economics from Duke University and dedicated enough to spend the past 35 years fulfilling what she sees as her duty: speaking for those who can no longer speak.
Now 88, the German-born Butter will appear Sunday, Feb. 10 at Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco to talk about her life and her 2018 memoir, “Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope, My True Story.” She’ll be in conversation with Bay Area author and filmmaker Elizabeth Rynecki.
Since the book’s release 10 months ago, Butter has been speaking mainly in the Midwest (she lives in Michigan) and East, so the Or Shalom event will mark her first talk on the West Coast.
An activist who long has focused on peace work, including the founding of an Arab-Jewish women’s dialogue group, Butter told J. she’s excited about meeting her Bay Area audience and visiting San Francisco for another reason: It’s where her son and his family live.
She plans to visit her grandson’s school, Thomas Edison Charter Academy, and the Brandeis School of San Francisco. Speaking in schools, and especially to middle-school students, is her favorite way to tell her story.
“Students are so ready to listen,” she said. “That’s what keeps me going.”
Students, she said, are receptive and uninhibited and “ask wonderful questions.” For example: “Did the Nazis allow you to take your pets to the concentration camp?” and “If you saw Hitler today, what would you tell him?”
“I think it’s wonderful that they get deeply involved and ask thoughtful questions,” Butter said.
After arriving in the United States on Dec. 24, 1945, Butter went on to graduate from Queens College in New York and, after earning a Ph.D. at Duke, become a professor of public health at the University of Michigan.
Born in Berlin in 1930, Butter fled Germany with her family in 1940 and wound up living in the same neighborhood as another family that did the same: the Franks. Anne and Irene, though they didn’t know each other, were separated in age by less than two years. “We had mutual friends and I knew enough to look up to her,” Butter writes on her biography page at irenebutter.com.
In February 1944, the Butters were taken to Bergen-Belsen, where Butter did come into contact with Anne Frank (though a fence was between them). The Butters suffered terribly at Bergen-Belsen until a twist of fate got them transferred out in January 1945.
But that wasn’t the end of misery. Two days out of Bergen-Belsen, the father was beaten to death, his body left at a train station in Biberach, Germany. Then, after reaching Switzerland, Butter was separated from her mother and brother because they were both seriously ill. (By way of France and Algeria, she eventually was reunited with them in New York.)
After World War II, most people did not want to hear or talk about experiences in concentration camps and Jewish ghettos.
Butter said on the first night she arrived in the U.S, “They told me [you’ll] be starting a new life and you must forget about the past and never talk about it. It was 1945 and nobody was ready to listen. If we ever mentioned anything about the Holocaust, we were silenced immediately.”
Years later, she heard Elie Wiesel telling survivors they had a duty to speak out and tell their stories. “One time I heard him say that if you were in the camps and you smelled the air and heard the silence of the dead, then it’s your responsibility to tell the stories and testify. That made a deep impression on me.”
But it wasn’t until Butter was invited to participate in an Anne Frank exhibit in Detroit in the late 1980s that it hit her: Since Frank wasn’t there to tell her story, she had to do it.
“Six million people weren’t there to tell their stories, and I had that blessing,” she said.
She’s been telling her story ever since.
“I didn’t ask to go through the Holocaust, but I was saved through the miracles of luck, and the love and determination of my Pappi. I owe it to him and everybody who suffered to talk about what I learned because suffering never ends, so our work must continue.”