Episode 32: Silence Helps Others Forget (Transcript)
Irene Butter: It suddenly dawned on me that my silence helps other people to forget, and it kind of supports the denier... so here I am. I’m the lucky one. I was given the gift of life. So I should... I should talk. [Theme music]
Irene: My name is Irene Butter. Hasenberg was my maiden name.
Nahanni Rous: Irene Butter is a child survivor of the Holocaust. Like the famous diarist Anne Frank, Irene’s family fled Nazi Germany and moved to Amsterdam, but were eventually deported to concentration camps. Irene knew Anne Frank... and saw her just weeks before Anne died.
Nahanni: This is Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. I’m Nahanni Rous. The Holocaust ended almost 75 years ago. That’s still recent enough for aging survivors to share their stories first hand. Within a decade, we’ll have to rely on their recorded or written testimonies. In a time of rising antisemitism and xenophobia, and increasing ignorance about the Holocaust, survivors’ stories are all too critical... lest we forget the genocide that killed two-thirds of European Jews as well as many others.
Irene: Oh, it’s my husband.
[Phone rings, Husband talks]
Nahanni: Irene is 89. She’s been traveling all over the country recently. She’s on a book tour for her memoir Shores Beyond Shores, From Holocaust to Hope.
Irene's husband: Ok, say hello to everybody in the family.
Irene: I will... and I saw the cherry blossoms... beautiful. Ok, I’ll talk to you later.
Irene's husband: Alright, bye-bye.
Nahanni: We’re in Bethesda, Maryland at Irene’s nephew and niece’s house. She flew in from her home in Ann Arbor, Michigan to speak at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC. It took Irene four decades to find the courage to share her story. I sat down with her to hear it.
Nahanni: Why don’t you begin at the beginning with where you’re from and tell me a little bit about your life before the war?
Irene: Well, I was born in Berlin, and um, I was born in 1930 and grew up in a very loving family, lived with my grandparents, and, um, we were comfortable financially. And then Hitler came to power. My grandfather owned a bank. My father was partner of the bank, and that was taken away. Jews weren’t allowed to own banks. And so my father was unemployed.
Nahanni: Irene’s father found a new job with American Express in Amsterdam. The Hasenbergs moved to Holland when Irene was seven, but they left her grandparents behind.
Nahanni: Did your parents talk to you about why you were leaving?
Irene: Well, it was quite obvious, you know. I mean, Hitler Youth and Nazis were all over the place. Swastikas were all over the place. Hitler giving speeches at rallies, you know, it was everywhere... and loudspeakers. And I think once my, um, my brother got beaten up in school because of being Jewish and then, you know, the fact that the bank was taken away. It was... We knew it was the Nazis and that bad things were happening to Jews, so I think my parents tried to protect me as much as possible, but it was so evident, you know. And then we left to live in Holland because my parents thought, we... Holland stayed neutral during World War I, and they thought that would happen again, but of course it didn’t. I mean, Hitler tried to conquer the whole continent. So, once that happened, you know, once the persecution began, all the restrictions and people going into hiding and people being deported. There were so many restrictions in Holland, and eventually, Jewish kids had to leave the public schools and go to Jewish schools. And that was very sad because every week there were more seats empty in my class because families had either gone into hiding or they were gone.
Nahnni: In 1943, Irene and her family were deported to a transit camp in Holland called Westerbork. From Westerbork, the Nazis sent 100-thousand Jews to death camps in Eastern Europe. Irene and her family were not sent to death camps, in part because Irene’s father had managed to get Ecuadorian passports for the family.
Irene: And that made a huge difference for us because the German government had formed an exchange policy by which they kind of kept an army of Jews who had either citizenship or passports to, um, so-called enemy countries of Germany... enemy of Germany. And so we were no longer just Jews. We were exchange Jews and that meant we had value to the Germans.
Nahanni: The Nazis could exchange them for German prisoners of war.
Irene: So, being um protected from deportation to Auschwitz, you know, was humongous.
Nahanni: After nine months at the transit camp in Westerbork, the Hasenbergs were transferred to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in the north of Germany.
Irene: We were told we wouldn’t be there very long. We were told it would be much better than Westerbork. It was a privileged camp, and we wouldn’t be there long because we would be exchanged. Well, um, first, upon arrival, we saw immediately it was not a better camp. It was far worse than Westerbork was, and uh conditions were horrible. Uh, adults were subjected to slave labor, six and a half or seven days a week, long hours from early morning til night. The food rations were minimal. We lived under very crowded conditions. Um, the combination of malnutrition and crowding leads to infectious diseases, the spread of diseases... everyone is vulnerable, and we all had body lice, and body lice transmit infectious diseases, so there were epidemics of cholera, of typhus, of pneumonia, of dysentery, um, all these horrible diseases. The major killer was typhus.
Nahanni: About 50-thousand people died at Bergen Belsen. The majority died in the last months of the war from starvation and disease. When Irene arrived there, she was 13. It was February 1944.
Irene: I had to help clean the barracks, take care of children whose parents were at work, do the laundry for the family, stand on line for the food rations, and those kind of things, and they were all difficult. To take care of children who are starving and who are very passive, and there’s no toys... there’s no joy for them... was really, really hard. Washing clothes in cold water without soap and then sitting by the wash lines to protect them because if you went away, they would be stolen.
Nahanni: Irene and her friend Hannalee from Amsterdam had found each other at Bergen-Belsen. Together, they took care of the younger children in the barracks. One day, Hannalee learned that a former schoolmate was also at the camp. Anne Frank and her family had also fled Nazi Germany, and lived near Irene’s family in Amsterdam. They went into hiding, but were betrayed and sent to Auschwitz. Anne survived Auschwitz and was transferred to Bergen Belsen. Hannalee had seen Anne. She was in a different part of the camp, separated from their section by a fence.
Irene: She came back to the barrack and told me that Anne was very skinny and very pale, and she had no clothes. She only had a gray blanket wrapped around her. And Hannalee asked her, “Is there anything I can do?” And she said, “If you could get me some clothes, that would mean a lot.” And so, um, they hadn’t taken our clothes away. You know, most of the camps, people just had uniforms, but we still... I guess the Germans thought, “If we ever do an exchange, they need to have something to wear.” Right? So they didn’t take it away from us even though all our clothes were rags by then. So we put together a bundle, and we were supposed to meet Anne the next day, same place, same time. See, you couldn’t do it during the day. It was in the evening because there were guard posts, and if they saw anybody connecting with the women in the other camp, they would just shoot you, but they couldn’t see at night because everything was dark. And so Hannalee and I went back, and we threw this bundle over the fence, and another woman came and ran off with it.
Nahanni: Soon after that night, Irene was transferred out of Bergen Belsen.
Irene: Hannalee, she survived, and I saw her many years later in Jerusalem, and she told me she threw over another bundle, and that time, Anne did get it. But she and her sister... her sister was already very sick with typhus, and she couldn’t come to the fence to see us. And they both died shortly after that, I think. So... yeah.
Nahanni: I’m amazed that you would take such a risk just to give somebody that you barely knew a bundle of clothing.
Irene: Well, you know, she was a very close friend... Hannalee of Anne, and to see her... I mean, true, our own situation was not viable, but still, I think in those times, you would share what you have with someone you were close to. And also, Anne at that time, she said, her parents are dead, and um, her sister Margot and she were the only ones surviving. She did not know that her father would survive. Had she known that, maybe... I don’t know. Maybe she could have pulled through. I don’t know. But um, you know, I think, um, doing something for someone else, even in those circumstances, is uplifting.
Nahanni: You stayed with your family the whole time, and that’s pretty unusual. Am I right?
Irene: It was unusual, but again, that had to do with the fact that we were exchange Jews. You know, if we were going to go on one of those exchange transports, it would be the whole family. And so we were so lucky to stay together. I think that’s the primary way of survival, is when you have each other. And then for my brother and me, it became extremely important to hang on because our parents were increasingly ill, and they needed us. I think without family, I don’t know if we would have made it.
Nahanni: What else do you think gave you the strength to pull through that?
Irene: Just hope. Hoping that you can make it and go back to a life, a normal life and, um, having dreams, I think. I had this dream because when I was a young girl, I was reading books about Heidi, and you know she had lost her parents, but then she went to live with her grandfather in the mountains of Switzerland. She was always skiing, so that was my dream, that I would learn to ski in Switzerland some day. And, um, yeah, you need something to hold onto... to take care of each other and to be able to envision a life again.
Nahanni: Did you ever learn to ski?
Irene: No. I never did. [Laughs] But it was a good dream.
Nahanni: What happened in your family? What happened to your relationships when you were in that horrendous situation?
Irene: Well, they became very, very close, you know. I mean, you never know what would happen from one moment to the next. Like, my parents and my brother left camp every day for labor, and just the fear that... Are they going to be back? Are they going to come back again? And the illness and the vulnerability of, you know, I saw people being beaten to death on the Appellplatz square, the um, roll call. If there were people who couldn’t stand up. You know, they’d collapse, and they just got shot or beaten. And every morning, I woke up, I was surrounded by dead, people dying during the night. So you don’t know what will happen from one moment to the next, so your family is the only... the main thing you want to hold onto. So, it, it definitely makes for closeness and appreciation and realizing how critical it is to have a family.
Nahanni: There were around 15-thousand so-called “Exchange Jews” in Bergen-Belsen. Only a fraction of them were ever exchanged.
Irene: We were wondering, first of all, if they want to exchange us, then why don’t they treat us better, so we wouldn’t have such a high death rate, and secondly, what are we waiting for? Well, it took almost one year before we were extremely lucky to be included in a prisoner exchange.
Nahanni: The Hasenbergs were selected for a prisoner exchange along with 300 other prisoners in January 1945. Irene, her brother and their parents, were loaded onto a Red Cross train. They weren’t told where they were going.
Irene: And it was a miracle that we were included because my parents were already in very poor health condition. My mother turned ill, and she hadn’t been out of bed for months, and my father was in very bad shape. So, um, some friends carried my mother to the train, and then, um, you know, we were elated to get out of this Hell, but two nights later, my father passed away on the train.
Nahanni: Irene’s father was sick and starving, and prison guards had beaten him badly before they left. A nurse from the Red Cross pronounced him dead. Passengers came to pay their respects on the train. Some said prayers.
Irene: The train stopped at a small town in southern Germany, and his remains were taken off and put on a bench at the railroad station, and we had no choice but to continue.
Nahanni: Red Cross officials gave Irene and her brother a moment to say goodbye, but their mother was too sick to get off the train. Irene smoothed her father’s tattered shirt and kissed his forehead. Then they got back on the train. The next day, they arrived at the German border with Switzerland. That’s where the prisoner exchange took place.
Irene: My mother and my brother both were so sick they were hospitalized immediately upon arrival from the railway station, and I wasn’t allowed to stay with them. And so the thing that horrifies us today about separation from families, it happened then, already. We haven’t learned a thing.
Nahanni: By then, Irene was 14. From Switzerland she was sent to a refugee camp in Algiers.
Irene: It was, of course, a totally different life. We had beds, we had sheets, we had three meals a day. They gave us clothing, and we had freedom. The camp was located on the top of a hill, and walking down the hill, you were on a beautiful beach of the Mediterranean.
Nahanni: Were you able to be in touch with your mother and brother at all when you were in Algiers?
Irene: For a few months, the war had not ended, and there was no mail, and I think it took two or three months before I received a telegram that they were recovering. And then once the war ended, we had regular correspondence. No telephone or anything, just letters.
Nahanni: Irene spent a year in the refugee camp in Algiers. Then she came to America.
Irene: I came by myself. I turned fifteen on the boat, lived with cousins of my mother in New York City, and my mother and brother came six months later. So we were separated for a period of one and a half years. Sometimes, when I think about it these days, that was the worst. It was a lot better, but it was also the worst.
Irene: I was, um, stateless for a long time. And statelessness is about the lowest status you can have in this world because you have no legal rights whatsoever, and there isn’t any country that has to take you in because you are nobody and you are nowhere. And so, um, I think one of the first things I did after I arrived was to start the process of applying for citizenship.
Nahanni: Irene became a US citizen in 1951. She attended City College, which was tuition-free at that time. She went to Duke on a research fellowship, and was one of the first women to get a PhD in Economics from the university. She met her husband there and they both got jobs at the University of Michigan. Irene: We’ve been there ever since. We started a family, and we have two children and three grandchildren and one great-grandchild now... five months old. So, um, life has been good.
Nahanni: When did you first begin talking about your experiences?
Irene: Yeah, that’s a good question. Well, many survivors report the same thing that happened to me. I arrived, and cousins of my mother who I had never met before because they came in the early 30s, they met me at Grand Central Station, we went to their apartment in the Bronx, and the very first evening, they said, “Well now you’ve finally come to America, and you must start a new life. You have to forget about the past. And don’t ever speak about it.” And I’ve heard that from so many survivors. It’s still kind of a mystery why people couldn’t hear, couldn’t listen, at that time. And once my mother and my brother came, and we had a number of relatives in New York, and if we ever mentioned anything, we were silenced.
Nahanni: Did you talk about it amongst yourselves when you were alone?
Irene: Very little. Very little. Even my mother, my brother, and I rarely talked about it. You know, might be some memory of something, like, I never want to eat turnips again or something like that, you know. But no, we did not talk about it. You know, there’s this ambiguity, I think, about building a new life and still hanging onto the past if the past is what it was. And so, first of all, I think my relatives were well intentioned. They meant well. They also couldn’t hear it, you know, but still, and in a way I think it was good to focus on... I mean, it’s not easy to build a new life when you come out of hell, and you’re in a new culture, new language, new country, but my brother and I were young. I was fifteen, and he was seventeen. And so for us it was a beginning, but for older people, it was far more difficult.
Nahanni: So when did you start telling about what happened?
Irene: Not until the late 80s. So it was like four decades of silence.
Nahanni: It was Irene’s daughter who first helped her break the silence. Her daughter had to prepare a one-hour speech when she was in middle school. The topic she chose was antisemitism and the Holocaust.
Irene: And she came home and she said, “Mom, will you be my visual aid?” [Chuckles] So she wanted me to talk for fifteen minutes about the concentration camps, and um, I was petrified, but I couldn’t turn her down. I was really, really scared of kids, you know, how would they react, and that was a time when you didn’t have that much in the media yet, but, um, it worked out. And then I started talking.
Nahanni: Irene began to share her story publicly. She was invited to speak in Detroit at a traveling exhibit about Anne Frank.
Irene: And as I was thinking about what I would say, it suddenly dawned on me that my silence helps other people to forget, and it kind of supports the deniers. And also I felt, well here we’re talking about Anne Frank, and she can never tell her story because her voice is dead forever, and so here I am. I’m the lucky one, who... I was given the gift of life. So I should, I should talk.
Nahanni: Irene still speaks regularly at high schools and colleges. She gets a lot of feedback from students.
Irene: A few times, I’ve gotten letters, saying, “I heard your story, and I came home and told my parents, and they’ve never heard of the Holocaust.” And that’s sort of one reason why I think it’s so important to go to these places.
Nahanni: What are the consequences of people not knowing?
Irene: I think, um, history repeats itself. We have said continuously, ever since the end of World War II, especially among Jews, “Never again.” And yet, saying it doesn’t do it. There has to be action to prevent it. I wish every state had a law that mandated the teaching of genocide and Holocaust, and maybe that would make a difference, but we sure haven’t learned much, and that’s a tragedy, that we haven’t learned to act, so it won’t repeat itself.
Nahanni: Where do you see evidence that we haven’t learned much?
Irene: Well, right now in our own country and many places of the world, we see white supremacy, ethnic cleansing, deportation of people, people being targeted, dehumanized, um, the separation of families is certainly evidence. What’s happening at our borders. Um, had we learned, then how could that happen again? It’s shocking.
Nahanni: Irene has told her story in schools and community centers across the United States, Israel and Germany. Irene: You know, if I can have an impact on young people to try to build a better world, then that would really please me.
Nahanni: Irene Butter’s memoir is called Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope. Irene is also the co-founder of an Arab-Jewish women’s dialogue group called Zeituna. Their motto is “Refusing to be Enemies.”
Nahanni: Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive. Our team includes Judith Rosenbaum and Becky Long. We had help this month from Abby Belyea. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. Ibby Caputo has editted our scripts for the past three and a half years, and helped us shape the sound of Can We Talk?. Now she’s off on other ventures. We’ll miss you, Ibby!
Nahanni: You can find Can We Talk? online at jwa.org/canwetalk, and anywhere you get your podcasts.
Nahanni: I’m excited to report that we are planning to expand our team. If you’d like to support our work financially and help us hire a podcast producer, please go to jwa.org/donate to make a contribution to Can We Talk?.
Nahanni: This episode of Can We Talk? wraps up our season. We’ll be back with more in the Fall. Until then, have a great summer. I’m your host, Nahanni Rous.
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 32: Silence Helps Others Forget (Transcript)." (Viewed on September 30, 2022) <https://jwa.org/podcasts/canwetalk/episode-32-silence-helps-others-forget/transcript>.