Butter (Hasenberg), Irene
Berlin (Germany), Amsterdam, Westerbork, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen
Irene Butter is the daughter of John and Gertrude Hasenberg of Berlin, Germany. Her father was a banker, as was her grandfather. She has one brother, Werner. The family practiced Reformed Judaism, very assimilated into German culture and considered itself primarily German. She had a very happy early childhood and started school in Berlin.
After her father’s bank was Aryanized, i.e. taken from him because of its Jewish ownership and when measures against Jews further increased, her father moved the family to Amsterdam, Holland in December 1937. There he worked for the American Express Company and Irene entered local public schools. They became briefly acquainted with another German family in exile, the Franks and their daughter Anne Frank.
Life changed drastically following the German invasion of Holland in May 1940. Mrs. Butter was expelled from school and entered a school for Jewish children. Jews were barred from public places, not allowed on public transportation, restricted to certain hours for store purchases, their bicycles were confiscated, and ultimately they had to wear the yellow Star of David on their clothing. Anticipating what was to follow, Mrs. Butter’s father initiated efforts to obtain a foreign passport or visa from contacts in Sweden.
In a roundup of Jews in June 1943, Mrs. Butter and her family were given ten minutes to pack and then they were transported on trucks to a train station and from there in cattle cars to the transit camp Westerbork. There they lived in barracks witnessing the weekly departures to Auschwitz. While at Westerbork, the documents Mrs. Butter’s father had solicited arrived in the form of Ecuadorian passports or visas. Mrs. Butter isn’t certain which. These documents prevented their deportation to Auschwitz and instead they were sent to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in February 1944.
At Bergen-Belsen the family stayed together while being housed in special barracks for those with foreign papers. The intent was to exchange individuals held in those barracks for German nationals being held by other countries. Conditions at Bergen-Belsen were described as very bad. Sleeping facilities were wooden bunk beds, three tiers high – two people per bunk. Food was scarce and sanitary conditions were extremely poor. Mrs. Butter’s father was required to do hard. manual labor. A brief contact was made with Anne Frank who was in an adjacent section of the camp.
In January 1945, Mrs. Butter and her family were selected for the exchange of foreign nationals. During the four-day train trip to Switzerland where the exchange was to take place, Mrs. Butter’s father died. His body was left on a bench at the railroad station of Biberach, Germany. She believes he died from malnutrition and the effects of beatings received while at Bergen-Belsen which probably caused internal injuries. Upon arrival in Switzerland, the exchange took place and, thereafter, her mother and brother were taken to a hospital. Mrs. Butter, then age 14, was sent to a DP (Displaced Persons) camp in Algiers, North Africa, operated by UNRRA (United Nations Relief & Rehabilitation Agency). This was her first separation from her family.
Through the assistance of relatives in the United States, Mrs. Butter was able to come to the United States in December 1945. Her mother and brother followed about a year later. She resumed her schooling and with a scholarship was able to go to a university and then pursued post-graduate studies achieving a PH.D. in economics. She is currently Professor Emeritus of Public Health at the University of Michigan.
Mrs. Butter has returned to the various sites of her European experiences including the village of Biberach where her father’s body was left. A war memorial has been erected there which includes her father’s name. She was invited to speak there at the local high school. She also visited the neighboring town of Laupheim, to visit the current grave site for her father where a grave stone was erected by the local Jewish community.
She is married and has two children, Pamela and Noah, and is currently very active in the Raoul Wallenberg Project at University of Michigan, honoring the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews, as well as in “Zeitouna” an organization of Jews and Arabs working for peace.
Some photographs are shown during the interview.
Date: July 29, 2003
Interviewer: Hans Weinmann
Length: 1 hour
Format: Video recording