×

Living to tell: With the help of Florence’s John Bidwell and Kris Holloway, Holocaust survivor Irene Butter shares her story

  • A drawing of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Nazi Germany by one of the many students Irene Butter has spoken to about her experiences during the Holocaust. Image courtesy of Irene Butter

  • Top left, 3-year-old Irene with her brother, Werner, in Berlin in 1934.

  • Center, Irene in Berlin in 1935, with her “Pappi,” John Hasenberg.

  • Bottom, Irene, age 12, with her “Mutti,” Gertrude Hasenberg, and her brother, Werner, in Amsterdam in 1943, not long before the family was deported to Westerbork, a transit camp for Dutch Jews.

  • Top right, Irene’s 1949 graduation picture from Walton High School in New York City.

  • Irene Butter with her longtime friends John Bidwell, left, and Kris Holloway of Florence, at the Clinton Presidential Center earlier this year in New York City, where Butter led an educational program about social justice. Nelson Chenault III

  • The Dalai Lama with Irene Butter in 1994 at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He received an award from a university program Butter co-founded to honor peaceworkers. Image courtesy of Irene Butter

  • Writers Kris Holloway and John Bidwell of Florence met Irene Butter in the early 1990s and have now co-written her memoir with her. The couple are seen here in their home. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Writers Kris Holloway and John Bidwell of Florence met Irene Butter in the early 1990s and have now co-written her memoir with her. The couple are seen here in their home. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Writers Kris Holloway and John Bidwell of Florence met Irene Butter in the early 1990s and have now co-written her memoir with her. The couple are seen here in their home. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Writers Kris Holloway and John Bidwell of Florence met Irene Butter in the early 1990s and have now co-written her memoir, “Shores Beyond Shores,” with her. The couple are seen here in their home. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Writer Kris Holloway of Florence talks about meeting Irene Butter and later, with her partner, John Bidwell, working with the Holocaust survivor to tell her story.  GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Writers Kris Holloway and John Bidwell of Florence met Irene Butter in the early 1990s and have now co-written her memoir, “Shores Beyond Shores,” with her. The couple are seen here in their home. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Writers Kris Holloway and John Bidwell of Florence met Irene Butter in the early 1990s and have now co-written her memoir, “Shores Beyond Shores,” with her. The couple are seen here in their home. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Writers Kris Holloway and John Bidwell of Florence met Irene Butter in the early 1990s and have now co-written her memoir, “Shores Beyond Shores,” with her. The couple are seen here in their home. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Writers Kris Holloway and John Bidwell of Florence met Irene Butter in the early 1990s and have now co-written her memoir, “Shores Beyond Shores,” with her. The couple are seen here in their home. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Shores Beyond Shores,” published by White River Press of Amherst. The photo, on the north coast of Holland, was taken in 1938 when Irene was 7 and her brother, Werner, 9.

  • Irene Butter at the grave of her father, John Hasenberg, in Laupheim, Germany in 2014. He died just a short time after he and his family were released from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Nazi Germany in January 1945. Image courtesy of Irene Butter



Friday, June 01, 2018

Irene Butter was just 9 years old when, in May 1940, Nazi Germany invaded The Netherlands and German troops began appearing on the streets in her neighborhood in Amsterdam. She remembers walking past them with her friend Vera as the girls were on their way to school one morning; the friends quickly quieted down.

“They didn’t even look our way,” Butter recalls. “They didn’t ever seem to notice us as we walked to school, and we soon forgot to be quiet.”

But over the next few years, Butter came to realize the German occupation carried considerable menace for her and her family: They were German Jews who had fled the Nazis in 1937, only to find themselves under their yoke once again. In 1943, they were forced from their Amsterdam home and taken to a transit camp, Westerbork, in northern Holland, from which they were shipped to Bergen-Belsen, a notorious concentration camp in northern Germany.

As it turned out, Butter, who nows lives in Michigan, was one of the luckier of the millions of people — Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, slave laborers from across Europe, Russian prisoners of war — whom the Nazis interned or murdered during World War II. She, along with her brother, Werner, and mother, Gertrude, survived their ordeal and made a new life in America. And for the past 30 years, Butter has been recounting her story to students and others, bearing witness to this desperate chapter of modern history.

Now, with the help of two longtime friends in the Valley, Butter, now 87, is telling her story in even greater depth. In her memoir “Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope,” by White River Press of Amherst, Butter provides a unique look at how she survived the Holocaust and grew into adolescence, relating her experience not just from the perspective of a young girl and teen but with a swiftly moving narrative that provides a sense of immediacy and urgency.

Much of that narrative is the work of John Bidwell and Kris Holloway of Florence, longtime friends of Butter who helped her transcribe her memories into a story that, while depicting the fear and brutality of the Holocaust, also offers a message of hope — that kindness, humanity and good luck can be found even in the most horrendous circumstances, and that courage comes in many forms.

“Irene looks at her life as a series of miracles,” Bidwell, the executive director of the Hampshire County chapter of the United Way, said in a recent interview at the home he shares with his wife, Holloway. “She feels she has a unique responsibility to talk about what happened ... so for us to be able to help tell that story, that’s a real honor.”

Butter has become a well-known figure over the years through her talks and from occasionally sharing stages with people such as the late Elie Wiesel, the writer and Holocaust survivor, and the Dalai Lama. She’s a retired professor of public health from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor; earlier in her academic career, she became one of the first women to earn a Ph.D. in economics from Duke University.

In a recent phone interview from her Ann Arbor home, Butter said it had been painful at times to revisit her past in detail; she noted that the version she tells schoolchildren “doesn’t have the brutal parts.”

But she’s also excited at the prospect of getting her story to a wider audience through her book, and with that the message she deems most important: “Never be a bystander” to injustice, she says. “Even one person can make a difference in making this a better world.”

And, she adds, talking to children about the Holocaust feels even more important today, in the wake of a survey conducted in April that found many Americans, particularly younger ones, lack a basic understanding of the tragedy. As one example, the Claims Conference, the Jewish organization that did the research, found that 41 percent of Americans did not recognize the name of Auschwitz, the Nazis’ most infamous death camp.

Butter says she’s also deeply grateful to the work Bidwell and Holloway have put into making the book what it is. “They transformed the account of an amateur writer into an engaging book,” she writes in an afterword. “My gratitude to Kris and John is beyond words.”

Breaking the silence

As Holloway sees it, working with Butter on her book, which she and her husband did over a period of about five years, was in some ways just a natural extension of the friendship the couple developed with her in the early 1990s. At that time, Holloway was a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, following a stint she and Bidwell had done in the Peace Corps in Mali in West Africa.

Butter was her graduate school advisor, and it was to her that Holloway turned when she discovered she was pregnant with the couple’s first son, Aidan.

“It’s my first semester in grad school, and I’m the only person in the program who’s pregnant,” says Holloway, who today is president of CISabroad, a Northampton-based organization that offers overseas study programs for students. “We didn’t know what to do, how I was going to be a student and a mother, but Irene was so supportive. She said ‘You can do it — I’ll watch Aidan.’ I couldn’t have finished the degree without her.”

Holloway and Bidwell became close to Butter and her husband, Charlie, then a professor of neuroscience at the university, and had dinner at their home on a number of occasions. There they noticed photos of Butter with some famous figures, Bidwell recalls: “Is that Irene with the Dalai Lama?!”

Bit by bit, Holloway and Bidwell learned her story; they also learned that Butter shared her history with different audiences. At the University of Michigan, she also founded a lecture series named after Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat credited with saving the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews during WWII. The program honors a different peaceworker (one was the Dalai Lama) each year.

As Holloway and Bidwell explain, Butter, like many Holocaust survivors (including her brother and mother) kept silent for years afterward, wanting to put her pain behind her. But in 1986, she was invited to speak at the Detroit Holocaust Center on a panel about Anne Frank, the famous German-Dutch schoolgirl whose post-WWII diary became one of the definitive memoirs of the Holocaust (Butter had known the Frank family in pre-war Amsterdam and also had an encounter with Anne Frank at Bergen-Belsen in early 1945, a few months before Frank died there at age 15).

“Irene just decided it was important to start sharing her story so that [the Holocaust] would not be forgotten,” said Holloway. “And she just glows. She loves kids, she loves talking to kids, and she’s so humble. She has never tried to make a big deal out of knowing Anne Frank.”

Butter has also given talks to high school students in Germany, and a few years ago she gave one in German — a language she hadn’t spoken in decades because of the trauma she associated with it. “In the end, I just felt it would make what I was saying much more relevant to the students if I did it in their own language,” she says. 

It was her love of children that first got Butter to talk to Holloway and Bidwell about writing a book with her. Holloway says she and her husband, about 10 years ago, suggested to Butter that she develop a memoir; Butter, however, was more interested in a book that would showcase some of the many letters and pictures schoolchildren had sent her over the years following her presentations.

“Those letters mean the most to her, that the pain she went through can have a positive impact,” says Holloway.

 Both Holloway and Bidwell have writing experience: Holloway is the author of the 2006 book “Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali,” a memoir of her time in the Peace Corps. Bidwell was an editor of that book; the couple have also written fiction.

Bidwell says he and Holloway did some initial work with Butter on her proposed book of student letters, shopping the idea to publishers, “but it wasn’t getting a lot of traction. So we said ‘Let’s focus on your story, let’s get that out there,’ and it just started to take on a life of its own.”

Over the next five years, the three friends spent a lot of time on Skype, email and occasionally in person, as Butter recalled her memories and Holloway and Bidwell wrote the scenes from Butter’s child’s-eye view. “We would write a scene, and it would be wrong, but it would open up her memory, and something new would emerge, some critical detail,” says Holloway.

The couple also reviewed each other’s work, shared it with authors in their own writing groups, and did a lot of online research to corroborate dates and other details. Bidwell says they read other works and memoirs about the Holocaust and looked at old film footage from the era, including clips from wartime Amsterdam, to get a feel for certain scenes.

“In the end, we were able to get so much more for the story by prompting Irene’s memories,” says Bidwell. “For instance, she remembered she had all these letters she’d sent her mother [when the two were separated for over a year after the war] that her mother had saved, and that helped fill in a lot of gaps for the last part of the book.”

 

Surviving the unspeakable

Like any story about the Holocaust, “Shore Beyond Shores” makes for difficult reading, though it’s softened to some extent by its perspective, as young Irene (then named Irene Hasenberg and called “Reni” by friends and family) cannot grasp the full extent of the Nazis’ barbarity. Instead, the story relates how the Germans upend her family’s life, even as Butter recounts normal events like the way she and Werner, likes sisters and brothers everywhere, would tease each other.

First her father, John, a partner in a Berlin bank (and a German Army veteran who had fought in World War I), loses his job when Nazi race laws forbid Jews from owning banks or working in them. He takes a position with the American Express Company in Amsterdam and moves his family there. But when the Germans occupy Holland, the race laws follow the family: Their bicycles are confiscated; parks, theaters and other public places become forbidden to Jews; then curfews limit how much time they can be outside their homes or shop for food.

Eventually the family is shipped to Bergen-Belsen, and there’s no way to lighten what happens there. People die of malnourishment, disease, forced labor and beatings by guards; survivors are plagued with lice, cold and constant hunger; and the Germans scream abuse at them during the morning appell, or roll call, with the prisoners standing in lines to be counted, over and over again. “You stupid Jew!” yells one guard. “Is standing still too hard for you?”

“Who are the stupid ones?” thinks 13-year-old Irene. “You have to keep counting because you can’t get it right the first time.”

All the while, Irene’s beloved “Pappi” works nonstop to keep his family’s spirits up. For many months, he had also been able to delay, through some kind of connection Irene doesn’t really understand, the family’s transport to Bergen-Belsen, and they miraculously dodge an even worse destination: Auschwitz.

“He really is a hero of the story,” says Bidwell. “The fact that the family was able to stay together in a camp is amazing, too.”

John Hasenberger was able as well to procure foreign passports for his family — to Ecuador — which enabled them to leave Bergen-Belsen in January 1945 as part of an exchange with German nationals in Allied countries. Tragically, he died just before the family reached Switzerland by train, most likely from internal injuries inflicted during an earlier beating by Bergen-Belsen guards. Irene’s brother and mother, both seriously ill, were sent to Swiss hospitals, while Butter was sent to a displaced persons (DP) camp in Algeria.

“The Swiss had done what the Nazis hadn’t been able to: tear apart my family,” writes Butter.

She was reunited with her brother and mother in America in 1946, and family remains very important to her. She and her husband have a son and daughter, as well as two granddaughters through their daughter, who lives in Israel and was formerly married to a Palestinian man. Having that kind of cross-cultural connection, especially at a time when Israeli-Palestinian tensions are so high, is vital to her, Butter says.

Butter has also long been a member of  a group she co-founded in Michigan, called Zeitouna (“olive tree” in Arabic), that includes Arab and Jewish women and works to promote peace through dialogue, empathy and building trust. “If there’s one thing I learned, it’s that we can only have peace through greater understanding between people, not labeling them ‘different,’ ” she says.

With a laugh, Holloway puts it like this: “What Irene would say is ‘If you hate me because I’m Jewish, meet me — come over to my house, and I’m going to make you the best hummus you’ve ever had. Let’s all calm down and eat together.’ ”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com. 

There will be a book launch for “Shores Beyond Shores” on June 20 at 7 p.m. at Broadside Books in Northampton with Irene Butter, Kris Holloway and John Bidwell. Irene Butter’s website is irenebutter.com.