Shores Beyond Shores - from Holocaust to Hope: A Bergen-Belsen Survivor's story of Hope over Adversity with Irene Butter | Global Thought Leader

Shores Beyond Shores - from Holocaust to Hope: A Bergen-Belsen Survivor's story of Hope over Adversity with Irene Butter | Global Thought Leader

In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Mahan Tavakoli speaks with Dr. Irene Butter, a professor, peace activist, and holocaust survivor. Irene Butter shares why she decided to break her silence and tell the story of her family's experience through the Holocaust, first by sharing her story on stages and at schools and by eventually publishing her book: Shores Beyond Shores - from Holocaust to Hope, My True Story: A Bergen-Belsen Survivor's story of Hope over Adversity. Irene ends the conversation with a powerful message for all!


Some highlights:

-Irene Butter’s memory of a happy childhood with her family in Berlin, Germany

-What a simple bar of chocolate represented for the Hasenberg family

-Irene Butter on the trauma, fear, and sadness in the Westerbork Camp

-Starvation and death in the Bergen-Belsen Camp 

-Irene Butter on her encounter with Anne Frank

-How Irene Butter and the Hasenberg family managed to leave Bergen-Belsen

-What motivated Irene Butter finally to share her family’s holocaust experience 

-Irene Butter on stories of triumph over trauma

-Irene Butter on why you should never be a bystander



Also mentioned in this episode:

-Werner Hasenberg, Irene Butter's older brother and Holocaust Survivor

-Hanneli Goslar, a close friend of Anne Frank, Holocaust Survivor

-Anne Frank, Annelies Marie Frank was a German-Dutch diarist. She gained fame posthumously with the 1947 publication of The Diary of a Young Girl documenting her life in hiding from 1942 to 1944, during the German occupation of the Netherlands. 

-Elie Wiesel, Author, Philosopher, Humanist and World's leading spokesman on the Holocaust



Book Recommendations:

Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope, My True Story by Irene Butter


Connect with Irene Butter:

Irene Butter Website



Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:

MahanTavakoli.com


More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website: 

PartneringLeadership.com



Transcript

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm so excited to have you along with me on this journey of learning and growth. And truly humbled and appreciative of you choosing to come along and listen to these episodes on Tuesdays with Changemakers from the greater Washington DC DMV region and on Thursdays with global thought leaders. Because it is a choice most, especially with podcasts, you are choosing the kind of content you want to listen to. Purpose driven, meaning driven, impact driven. Which is why it's an absolute honor, both to have the conversations with the guests that I host and most, especially to share them with you. 

And I love hearing from you. Keep those comments coming. mahan@mahantavakoli.com and there's a microphone icon on partnering leadership.com. You can leave voice messages for me there. 

One of the incredible honors is the books that I read have a significant impact on me too. And I have these conversations hoping to share with you some of the insights, some of the drives of these magnificent human beings. People whose life stories by themselves can teach us a lot.

Now it is an absolute privilege and honor this week to be speaking with Dr. Irene Butter. Irene has had a distinguished career as a professor, has done incredible things, won numerous awards. However, we spend our time most specifically talking about a book that she chose to write. After she started talking about her experience, for many years, she didn't talk about her experience going through the Holocaust. When she had landed in the US she had been told not to talk about that experience. Then in the late 1980s, she decided to start talking about it. And then in 2019, she wrote a book Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope: My True Story.

A beautifully told story through the eyes of a child, Irene butter and her brother Werner experiencing the horror of the Holocaust and the many lessons we can learn as individuals, as a community and as a society from what Irene, her brother and countless others experience. 

So here's my conversation with Dr. Irene Butter. 

Irene Butter. Welcome to Partnering Leadership. I'm absolutely honored and thrilled to be having this conversation with you. 

Irene Butter: 

Thank you. I'm happy to be here too.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Aunt Irene, I have known of your story through a dear friend of mine that I've known for almost a quarter century now, and his father happened to be your wonderful brother who plays a significant role in your life and also in you sharing your story on Shores Beyond Shores. 

Before we get to the book, you have had a very successful career as a professor. And I want to start with that first. You chose a profession to teach and specifically advocate on behalf of health. And I wonder why you chose to do that and how that contributed to you becoming such a great teacher of then your childhood experiences as you share in Shores Beyond Shores. 

Irene Butter: 

I think my teaching career and writing the book perhaps were parallel pursuits, but the book came much later and by choice of health. Actually my degrees in economics, and I became interested in a particular field within economics, which is the economics of human resources or investment of a society in its human resources, which includes health and education, and many other aspects to the social fabric that contribute to the health of a population. And that was the area of economics that really attracted me, particularly the human resource aspect of it. And, the public health aspect of it. How particular groups in a society are sometimes neglected by the health system and the structures, the social structures that contribute to health.

So that's a question of equity and I'm always been very interested in issues of equality and equity, and probably that does relate or was perhaps prompted by childhood and early experiences of inequality and discrimination and all the things that happen when a group is targeted to being considered inferior in the social fabric.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Now you experienced that as a child, which is the story you beautifully share in Shores Beyond Shores put in the voice of a child. And it's not just an autobiography of your entire life, but that childhood experience. And you start out being born in Berlin and with a wonderful happy family, multi-generational family. What was life like when you were born with that very close knit family in Berlin?

Irene Butter: 

Yes, that is definitely a significant influence on my entire life, because I consider myself having had an idyllic childhood growing up in a loving family with my brother Werner, two years older than I am and loving parents. And particularly the fact that I was living with my grandparents in the same house during my early childhood. And they were very loving and playful and they spoiled us no end. And many of my early childhood experiences relate to the fact that we lived in the same house. And they contributed to my upbringing and my growing up and those memories have lasted.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And those are the beautiful memories you share as you were growing up as a child in this idyllic environment with your grandparents, spending a lot of time with your grandpa, whether planting seeds or walking around and sitting on his lap. Lots of great stories. You were noticing a change in the environment, even leading up to the 1936 olympics that were being held in Germany. 

Irene Butter: 

Right. Well, Hitler came to power in 1933. And then I was three years old, but gradually the environment changed. You began to see Swastikas everywhere. There was a Hitler youth, young boys marching around in uniforms, brown uniforms, and not looking friendly in particular. And then of course there were gatherings and then the persecution of Jews began.

I don't really remember that in and of itself. I don't think anybody in my family was deported or arrested, but what happened in our family that was so crucial was that my grandfather owned a bank. My father was a partner in his bank and the bank was taken away. At some point, Jews were no longer allowed to own banks. And at that point, my father was unemployed and that's how we started the journey leaving Germany. 

He went to Amsterdam trying to find a job, but also because Holland stayed neutral during World War I. And there was that hope that Holland would continue to remain neutral. Of course, that didn't happen, but he left and that was a big turning point in my family because for a few months he was gone. And then eventually once he found employment with the American Express company in Amsterdam, my mother, my brother and I were able to follow him. 

And that was a difficult moment because on the one hand I was so thrilled to be going to Amsterdam and be reunited with my dad because I missed him terribly. But on the other hand, we had to leave our grandparents behind. They were not able to join us. And so it was a very mixed feeling of reuniting with my dad, but losing my grandparents. And I would say that was the beginning of my realization that something was wrong and life is going to be very different from now on. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Irene, as things were changing all around in Germany. And obviously eventually in Holland, there were small little steps all along the way. And one of the things that you have been a big advocate of you say “Do not be a bystander.” 

And I wonder at what point do people draw the line? Is it when the first flag goes up? Is it when the first youth start punching in the street? Is it when the first started rounding people up? There were lots of people that watched this go on. And as you repeatedly say yourself, maybe they didn't actively participate, but they were bystanders. At what points should the bystanders have recognized what was going on and stepped in rather than just watch? 

Irene Butter: 

I would say from the very beginning it's a mixed situation because actually the Dutch people we're very friendly towards Jews. And I remember that first, when there was a rule passed that all Jews had to wear the star of David on their clothing, some of the Dutch people who weren't Jewish started wearing the same star of David. So as to disguise the difference between Jews and non Jews. And there was an act of not by standing. And of course, many Dutch people were willing to hide Jews in their homes taking a very significant risk because it was punished severely if it was found out. That being true, after the war some of the data revealed that a much larger population, a percentage of the Dutch population was murdered then several other countries, European countries surrounding countries. And so you wonder, what did happen?

There was a Nazi party which Dutch people joined. And also some of the people who weren't bystanders, who were willing to hide Jews, they weren't so kind. And they took advantage and some cases, Jews were betrayed. So it's complicated, but in all of that, I would say, one should protect the vulnerable people. And that's what I hoped to do in my life. And would be willing to do if things in this country were such that refugees needed to be protected, whatever ways possible.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's a great lesson in your own experience. And in addition to that before getting more into the experience from Holland on is that Hitler liked true Germans. While your parents were proud Germans and your father was a proud German that had served in the military. He just defined his true Germans as looking a certain way. 

Irene Butter: 

Yes, he was proud to defend Germany during World War I. My family and many Jews in Holland and Germany were highly integrated. And, I always would define it that my family when asked about their identity I think they would probably have said they were German first and Jewish second. That's how they felt that was their culture. It was their heritage. They felt comfortable. They were basically German. The good Germans.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And as you transitioned, even when you were in Amsterdam, you felt a sense of connection to Germany. Things continued getting worse where by 1942, after the Nazis had invaded, the Jewish families started disappearing. You talk about a birthday celebration that left a big imprint on me. 

Irene Butter: 

Yes, by 1942. Holland was invaded in 1940. And increasingly there were scarcities. There were food coupons you had to have in order to buy things. And many foods were no longer available and one of them was chocolate. And so my mother had a large bar of chocolate that she stored away for birthday celebrations. And every time there was a birthday in our family, she would get it out of the closet. And we would look at it and imagine that we were having a genuine birthday with chocolate and all the other goodies that were no longer available. We would say we hope that we could celebrate the next birthday in our family with the same bar of chocolate and it will be put back in the closet. And so it became a symbol of celebration when the actual celebration was no longer possible. And I think my brother and I were always hoping we could have a little more of that chocolate bar, but it was put away.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And it represented that hope, that I think was really important all throughout this experience for you. And the presence of the older brother, I had the fortune of getting to know a little bit. Your brother Werner, who is my friend John's father. John, being named after his grandfather. So Werner also had a way of explaining things that put personal effective on the world around you for you. And it comes across pause in your storytelling. 

Irene Butter: 

I was two years younger. At that age, the two years made a big difference and he knew a lot more than I did. He was very smart and a great reader. And I remember he had meet up a travel agency as a boy, and he was selling tickets to all the family and friends, tickets to various places all over the world. And I was ignorant. I was this little sister playing with dolls. And so he often remarked to me that don't I know anything. And how could I be so stupid.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

That's how older brothers are supposed to treat their younger sister. 

Irene Butter: 

It was normal. Right?

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Yes. There is a dash of normalcy that your parents try to inject into what's continually becoming a worse and worse experience for you. And a dash of normalcy the interactions within the brother and sister. So at what point did it strike you that this is serious? 

Irene Butter: 

Well, Jews were arrested. Family members, neighbors, friends. You found out about it right away when somebody had been arrested and deported. And my father had, there was a Jewish council in Amsterdam, and he had a role in the Jewish council. And his job was that when people were arrested on the street, then his organization was allowed, they got the keys to the apartment of the house and they were allowed to go and pack some of the belongings that would be sent to, follow them to the concentration camp, Westerbork, if they were still there. 

So of course, his work and he came home and talked about it, it gave us a perspective that maybe we wouldn't have had. But then also in one case, there was friends of my parents, they were deported.  But their mother who lived with them for some reason was not deported so she came to live with us. And a bed was set up for her in our dining room. And she stayed with us as long as we could protect her. And then she was also arrested and deported. 

So that was an experience my brother and I welcomed because it was like a grandma was in our house, but of course it didn't last. And then another time friends of my parents were deported, but their daughter was not included in the deportation. And then she came and lived with us for a while and then her fate replicated it, but still, so these things were very sad. And then also Jewish kids were not allowed to continue in the public school. And so I had to transfer to a Jewish school and that was also sad because every week there were more of the school benches that were empty because people had either gone into hiding or they were deported. So the class became smaller and smaller in terms of student body.

And it's a lot of sadness when you see people disappearing around you and the fear that is instilled because one day it's going to be your turn.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And you're experiencing all of this at age seven and eight. And eventually you are told about these trains, but it sounds like from the book you were confused that trains could go to bad places. 

Irene Butter: 

Yes. Well, that's how the Nazis deported to Jews primarily in cattle car trains. And we were prohibited to use public transportation and also Nazis confiscated our bicycles. So our world became smaller and smaller. And I'm not sure I'd ever seen a cattle car train until the day when we were arrested and put in such a train to Camp Westerbork.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And that entire experience, Aunt Irene, is intentionally so dehumanizing as you went through that experience with your father, your mother and brother weren't there. 

Irene Butter: 

Yes, it was extremely dehumanizing to be put in a wagon of a cattle car train 60, 70 people squeezed together like sardines in a can. Very little space, not enough space for everyone to sit on the floor of the wagon. There were no seats, of course and no water, no food, no toilet. And essentially no air because the wagons didn't have windows. Once they locked that door it was pretty miserable. 

And in our own experience, I think we were in such a wagon only maybe six or seven hours, but it was a very hot day in June. And that added to discomfort. However, people were deported to the death camps in Eastern Europe sometimes had to be in such a situation, such confinement for days. Four or five days until they arrived at whatever was determined to be their destination. And people died on the way. Some people tried to escape, but that was very rare and difficult.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So the first camp you were in was Westerbork, which is an Eastern part of Netherlands. What was life like in that camp in Netherland? 

Irene Butter: 

It's hard to describe because now it's in retrospect and I'm looking at it from the next camp, which was so much worse. But Westerbork had its own tragedies. While we slept in barracks and there were three level bunk beds, which had only straw mattresses, nothing else. And the only space that could be yours would be one third of the floor under a bunk bed.

It was very crowded. People were just given very little space. The barracks were not hygienic. Cleanliness was always a problem and we had to use out houses, which were in very bad shape. When men and women were separated different sections of the barracks, but we could be together all day and we could have our meals together.

There were three meals a day. And again, in retrospect, the food wasn't so terrible, but of course it was far from what your mother cooked every day. And it was far from we imagined. These days for meals in a summer camp, which most people would describe as probably inadequate, but we got food. And the adults had to work, but it wasn't hard labor, like what was the situation in the next camp.

And for children my age it was complete boredom. There was no schooling. There were no books. There were no crayons or coloring books. There was no playground. And we had nothing to do. Of course, children seek out other children and do things together, but there was nothing to do.

And so I always remember the boredom, but over-casting was the fact that every week a train would pull in. A cattle car train. The railroad track was right in the middle of the camp and it would pull in, Saturday afternoon. It was like clockwork. And it would sit there the rest of Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

And then Monday night at 11 o'clock, the Barrack leaders would turn on the lights and they would read off the list, the names of people who had to board that train early Tuesday morning. And so there was trauma. 

It was first, you were woken up to listen whether your name was on the list. In that case you would have to pack your belongings and get ready to leave. And if your name was not on the list, then my parents, Werner and I would always get dressed and go to other barracks where we had relatives or neighbors or friends. There was always someone dear to us who had to leave that morning. And then we would spend the rest of the night and walk with them to the train.

And when we said goodbye, we pretty much knew that chances are, we'll never see each other again. And that was the trauma each week because it was a cycle the next Saturday, the train would pull in again, the same thing would happen. So even after the train left and you were lucky to stay in Westerbork, you started worrying about the next week.

And that's what I remember most, that life was so filled with fear and trauma and sadness. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

Aunt Irene I believe you and your family were on the list to be sent to Auschwitz also. And your father's friend Leo Buschoff had managed to get you off of that list. 

Irene Butter: 

Right. That in itself is hard. Isn't it? For one person to be able to manipulate the list because we wanted to save a friend or family, but that only meant that another family had to be put on the list because the Nazis had a precise number that would board that train every week.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So then eventually you were called to go to camp Bergen-Belsen which initially you thought might be a better experience, but it didn't turn out that way. 

Irene Butter: 

Yes, correct. Well, first of all, the reason why we were sent to Bergen Belsen was that we had received passports to Ecuador. My father had, from a friend, had received the contact information of somebody in Stockholm who could provide passports and he had sent away a letter with a passport picture asking whether we could receive those passports.

It was based on the belief that the Germans had and Nazis had formulated an exchange policy by which they hoped to exchange dues for German citizens in other countries, in the Americas, because a lot of Germans had left Germany earlier in the 20th century, during depression and difficult times. And Germany wanted to get these people back to help win the war. And also prisoners were included in this policy prisoner exchange. 

And so my father had sent it away, but the passports didn't come when we were arrested and sent to Westerbork. But after we were there for about four months, a package arrived and that was forwarded from our home address in Amsterdam and it contained four passports to Ecuador and that was considered a fortune and a miracle because we never got any mail forwarded from our home address. And when the passports arrived, our status changed in Westerbork. We were no longer at risk of being sent to Auschwitz or another death camp because we were now labeled exchange Jews. And that meant we had value to the Nazis and were sent to Bergen-Belsen because there was an exchange camp there.

That's where they gathered Jews who were exchangeable, tradeable. And when we left Westerbork, people told us that Bergen-Belsen would be much better camp. And besides we wouldn't be there long because we would be exchanged. 

When we arrived in Bergen-Belsen, the first vision of the camp, the image we knew right away, it wasn't better. It was very grim. So the barbed wire people standing behind it, they were emaciated. They had sad expressions on their faces. They wear rags rather than clothing. And by no means could it be a better place than where we came from.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And you tell wonderful stories about your experience there Aunt Irene. I want to touch on a couple of things. One, you talk about the absolute sheer hunger and a hunger that most of us in modern day society have absolutely no sense of what was that experience like, especially for a child. 

Irene Butter: 

Yeah, it's very difficult to describe because the word hunger is a common word in our language, but from my viewpoint, it doesn't at all describe the experience of never having sufficient food. You're always hungry. You're never not hungry. And your stomach is always rumbling. And you become fixated on food.

A piece of bread is like a million dollars and there's very little of it that you get everyday. Just maybe a piece of bread is this big, it has to last you the whole day. And then there's no other food except at night you got a soup which most of the time was made of turnips boiled in water and then that's about it.

And people can't sustain on that amount of food. Everyone was malnourished, losing weight very rapidly, vulnerable to disease, epidemics. I mean the combination of crowding, of lack of food, of poor hygiene. And lice, lice that transfer diseases from one person to another, you can't survive that for any length of time.

And so Bergen-Belsen, even though it didn't have gas chambers, it's often referred to as the slow death camp. And it had a very high death rate and the survival of people was very small. 

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So Aunt Irene, what helped you survive when you were there? 

Irene Butter: 

Yeah. It's a good question. I was fortunate. I didn't catch any of the lethal diseases. I was 14 years old. I didn't have to work at that age. My responsibilities were taking care of children whose parents were at labor, the little kids . And helping to keep the barracks clean. Standing on line for the food ration for the family at the end of the day. 

And doing the laundry for my family. There's no soap, just cold water, no warm water. Pooling the clothing, just through the cold water, hanging it up on a wash line outside, sitting there with the clothing, because if you left it, you would probably never see it again because there were two kinds of thieves in the camp. The bread thieves and the clothing thieves. 

And you couldn't blame anybody actually for stealing out of hunger, you try to steal bread and the bread thieves would kind of loom around it at night. So if you had a piece of bread, you had to put it under your pillow or under your blanket otherwise it would be stolen. And clothing was stolen because people didn't have clothing. They only had rags after a while. So on the one hand you could understand people needing the bread and needing the clothing. But on the other hand, they take it away from someone who has no more than they do. So it is not justifiable, but it's understable.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And it's something that your father's morality code that he had, and he kept talking about, which is, while you understood other people that did this, you had a code amongst the four of you, the Hasenbergs. You were not going to steal no matter what.

So, while you were at the camp, you also had a brief exchange with Anna Frank that had actually been in the same neighborhood back in Amsterdam also. What was that exchange like? 

Irene Butter: 

Well, that was a very sad encounter. Anne Frank who had been in hiding with her family for a long time in Amsterdam, in an attic they were betrayed and sent to Auschwitz as a family. The mother died in Auschwitz. And her sister Margot came to Bergen-Belsen when Auschwitz was liquidated. And already, of course they were in very bad condition. The women who came from Auschwitz were in a separate camp, adjoining camp to the camp where I was, and there was a barbed wire fence and we were not allowed to go close to it. We were not allowed to have contact with those women. I was living in the same Barrack as a friend of Anne Frank, Hanneli.

And one night she was walking close to the barbed wire. Well, it was dark, the guards in the guardpost couldn't see because it was very dark. And so she heard some people speak Dutch and she went to the fence and she said, she asked if Anne Frank happens to be there. And this woman went to get her.

And so Hanneli met Anne and Anne was very thin and very pale, and she didn't have any clothing, but a grey blanket wrapped around her. And so she asked Hanneli if Hanneli could get some clothing for her. So Hanneli came back to the Barrack and told me the story, and then I helped gather some clothing. We had never been deprived of our clothes in Bergen Belsen.

And she said “Tomorrow night, I'm going back to meet Anne”, and she asked me to come along and I did. And that's how I saw her for a few minutes. We threw it over the fence, a bundle of clothing. But it was dark and another woman came, picked up the bundle and ran away with it. So that was my single encounter with Anne Frank.

When I saw Hanneli many, many years later in Jerusalem because she and her sister survived Bergen-Belsen and came to Israel later after the war. She told me she threw over another bundle of clothing, in that time Anne did receive it, but she and her sister were already very ill. Her sister couldn't even come to the fence to see us. And she died. My guess is that she did not live very long after we saw her.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So eventually partly because of being part of the exchange Jews and Ecuadorian passports, you had the opportunity to leave the camp, but to do so you, Werner, and your parents had to pass a health check. 

Irene Butter: 

Yeah, we had to be screened by a doctor and there was an announcement one day in the morning, the Nazis came from barrack to barrack and made an announcement that there would be an exchange transport and everybody with south or any kind of American passport would need to come for screening. When we heard that, my father was at labor and my mother had taken ill. Months before that, she was bedridden and I was taking care of her. We dressed her and tried to get her to walk with us to the screening place, but she couldn't make it. And so then Werner said, "Well, we better go because this may be the only chance ever to get outta here." And so he and I did, and our names were checked off. And we came back to the Barrack and my father came back from labor and he really looked like he was in very bad condition. Something had happened. He said he had to lie down and he couldn't come with me to get checked off. And so he rested for a while. And later we found out from some of the people who were at labor with him that he'd been badly beaten that morning. 

So after a while he, when he woke up, I begged him to come with me and he had been leaning on me. We walked back to the screening station. And they said, " John Hasenberg, are you ill?" And he said no. And then they said " Well, your children have already been here and they are cleared to go under transport." And then he looked at me and he checked off my mother's name. And he said the four of you should be ready tomorrow morning. You'll be leaving the camp.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So this is looking at a 14 year old girl and everyone had been so poorly treated, so malnourished that he thought you were your 30, some 40 year old mother. 

Irene Butter: 

Well, yeah, it'll be a mystery. It'll never be solved. Did he really think I was my mother or was he being kind? We don't know. We never know.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And once you got on that train, your mother was not in good health. When there was hope for the family making it out of the camp that's when, on the train you lost your father. 

Irene Butter: 

Yes. It was such a shock. He had done so much to save us for all that time and we were so close to freedom and he couldn't make it.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So in Switzerland, your mother and brother Werner are hospitalized. And why were you then separated from them and sent to Algeria? 

Irene Butter: 

Yeah, well, the Swiss said that I wasn't sick enough to be in a hospital. And they wouldn't let me stay. I mean, I begged every time I saw anybody who looked official, I begged, I said I needed to be with my mother and my brother, and we just lost my father. It was all a bureaucratic process and all the other people that came from Bergen Belsen, if they hadn't died on the train they were sent to the refugee camp in Algiers because the Swiss claimed they had too many refugees. They couldn't take anymore. And it was important for them to get us out of the country as quickly as possible.

We were put on a train to Marseille and there, we boarded a ship and that took us to Algiers. And then to this camp called Jeanne d'Arc.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

So you spent time on the camp and eventually with family. In the U S vouching for you, you came to the US celebrating your 50th birthday on the ship. But when you got here in December, 1945 Aunt Irene, the message from your relatives was forget what you've been through. Don't talk about it. Move on. 

Irene Butter: 

That was the message. And I think they were well-intentioned. I think they had my interest at heart, but then also the world wasn't ready to hear what had happened to us. And this was true. We hear the same message was to be received by many other survivors who came at that time. And the world really was not prepared. It took quite a number of years before people were revealing, listening, writing books, making films, and it became public knowledge. And in a way I must say the relatives were right, because I know some family members who, after the Holocaust, they survived, they went back to Holland. They went back to Germany and they had a much harder, much more difficult time to get back to normalcy. Then people in United States, if they just focused on building a new life, this was possible in the United States. And there were many opportunities.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

You did build a new life. And again, don't want to minimize the fact that you have had a very successful career as a professor, have done great things. But eventually also in the 1980s, you decided to tell your story, what got you Aunt Irene to be more open and willing to share your own story? 

Irene Butter: 

Well, there were a number of forces, but I would say I once heard Elie Wiesel gave a speech. He was the main proponent and spokesperson for survivors and victims of the Holocaust. Having been to Auschwitz himself. And he made this statement. He said, "If you were in the camps, if you smelled the air, and if you heard the silence of the dead, then it's your responsibility to be a witness to provide testimony. And to tell you stories, because if you do not, then the victims die twice." And that made a very deep impression on me. I started talking and I never stopped.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

And I know you have talked to thousands of kids and in schools and elsewhere, you get lots of letters and feedback from them. When you speak to these young minds and hear back from them, what strikes you in the message that you're sharing and in the message that they're getting from your life journey Aunt Irene? 

Irene Butter: 

Well, one thing that I've been very moved by is how students embrace my story. Because in the beginning I was quite apprehensive in going to schools and telling the story, but somehow it's almost like they're craving something like this, a story of survival, the story of getting beyond trauma. And I think it is because so many students, people even under what we call normal circumstances, have trauma in their lives. And that helps them relate to my story. And when they see that I made it. It gives them courage to triumph over trauma. That's one of my messages. It doesn't mean not suffering, but it means that suffering doesn't have to frame your life as you go on, but that you can move forward and you can have a rich life. Especially if you take it to heart. 

Don't be a bystander when you see injustice, evil bullying, mistreatment, discrimination, all those ills that don't show respect for other people who deserve the same dignity and the same rights as you do. As we all do. 

And so another message is refusing to be enemies. Because so many people in our world are enemies of other people that they've never even met, that they've never even seen. They don't even know anything about them, but they're enemies. And if you refuse to be enemies, if you open yourself up to meeting other people. People who are different. By nationality, by religion, by ethnicity, by gender, I've learned so much from people that other people consider others.

And, they have enriched my life. They have been friends. They have allowed me to learn about other cultures, other religions. In my eyes that's the way to live. Don't be a bystander. If you see a kid being bullied, don't turn your back. Do something about it.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

What an absolutely beautiful message Aunt Irene, of hope and of the responsibility we each have to make a difference. Now, one of the things I absolutely adore about you, your story, obviously, the story is very well told. I think this is an absolute must read for everyone, their kids, because it's easy to relate to even the conversations within you and Werner. The smells, the sights, the sounds, the way you describe it is beautifully done. The thing I found most impressive though, is that you have come out of this entire experience and your life experience with tremendous empathy and tremendous understanding. And I could imagine going through experiences, what you went through for people coming out with anger, bitterness, and hostility. What is it in you that has given you so much empathy and joy that you have been able to share throughout your life? Not just through sharing of this experience with others all around.

Irene Butter: 

Well, I have learned that standing up for others, helping others, being kind to others makes you feel good. It makes my days when I can do something for another person. So you could call it selfish.

Mahan Tavakoli: 

What a beautifully and selfless statement to make Aunt Irene, because I know you have made my day and you have made the days of countless listeners across the country and across the globe. I truly appreciate you taking the time to share some of your inner beauty, your inner joy.

Along with your experience with the partnering leadership community. Much love to you and true appreciation for not only your message, but who you are and what you represent Aunt Irene. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Irene Butter: 

And thank you for inviting me. And making this such an enjoyable conversation and thank you for all your affirmation. Appreciate it.