Joan Knoertzer’s dulcet chords provided the perfect prelude to our meeting in Weber’s large ballroom, which was filled to capacity with 200 Rotarians and guests. President Greg rang the bell, and all stood to sing a hearty “God Bless America.” Indeed, the theme of liberty would resonate especially clearly this day. With a nod from Greg, Phil Klintworth came forward for the Inspiration. He delivered it with emotion, with just the right amount of sentiment, for Phil is a retired Navy captain. “I’d like to quote Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama: ‘Love and compassion are not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.'”
President-elect once removed, Joanne Pierson, bounded to the podium to lead the assembly in song. Muffling her TNT-charged enthusiasm just enough to avoid imparting a trauma to Dr. Butter, Joanne began with the 1971 hit, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”: “I’d like to build the world a home and furnish it with love/Grow apple trees and honey bees and snow-white turtle doves,” she began, with her audience not far behind. Then came the line that jogged everybody’s memory — “I’d like to hold it in my arms” became “I’d like to give the world a Coke…and keep it com-pan-y.” Thus did Madison Avenue obliterate Vietnam protests and Civil Rights for Atlanta’s head honcho. “I don’t know why I’m so thirsty for a Coke,” Greg declared amid exuberant laughter. Why not? It’s the real thing.
Spring Fling Announcement: Ed Hoffman informed us of the upcoming “Spring Fling” party, at the Hudson Car Museum in Ypsilanti. The date: Sunday, May 12 (Mother’s Day), from 4:00-7:00 p.m. The museum is located at 100 East Cross Street, just across from Side Tracks Bar, which will be catering the event. “The menu is kid-friendly [miniburgers, mac and cheese, roasted sweet potato fries, house salad, and beverages], so bring the whole family,” Ed pointed out. He also described the recent renovations “which have made it look like a real museum — the permanent collection of Hudson automobiles, some unique, looks fantastic.” Cost: $30 per adult; $10 per child under 12. Final payments are due April 30.
Robert S. Northrup Humanitarian Award: Past President Ashish Sarkar delivered a wonderful homage to Bob Northrup, in attendance with his wife, Quincy. Among Bob’s myriad achievements cited by Ashish was his “development of ORT (Oral Rehydration Therapy) Therapy — for children’s survival from dehydration [a result of diarrhea]. Bob Northrup is a true humanitarian,” Ashish declared; a catalyst for the Club’s annual giving of $200,000. He also cited Rotary’s keystone priority of “ending polio around the world. So, please plan to attend another Rotary meeting — and you can give at the website [a2rotary.org]. Now, I would like to introduce Ken Fischer, President Emeritus of the University Musical Society of the University of Michigan, whom you know well. Ken–”
“Wow, we haven’t had a crowd this big for a long time,” Ken began upon reaching the podium. “I am deeply honored to introduce to our Club and to our many visitors today, the recipient of the 2019 Robert S. Northrup Humanitarian Award, Dr. Irene Butter.” A stunning ovation greeted Dr. Butter, who had come come forward, and stood by Ken. “I met Irene over 15 years ago as the organization I was affiliated with at the time, the University Musical Society, was making a conscious effort to get ourselves out of the ivory tower of our home in Burton Memorial Tower and to build genuine, long-term relationships with the many communities of shared heritage throughout Southeast Michigan.
“As a part of this process I attended a meeting of a group called Zeitouna, which means olive branch in Arabic. The group is composed of six Arab and six Jewish women who work toward a just peace.” Ken underscored Zeituna’s mission: “to embody, model, and promote the peaceful, just and sustainable coexistence of the Arab and Jewish peoples through connection, trust, empathy and action.” After citing the documentary made about the organization, “Refusing to be Enemies: The Zeitouna Story,” filmed by Laurie White, Ken announced “the co-founder and current member of the group is our honoree, Dr. Irene Butter.” Ken then described an event that occurred “around the same time,” the bestowal of the Raoul Wallenberg Medal to the legendary performer and UMS friend, Marcel Marceau, in 2001. “Who introduced Marcel Marceau that day? It was Dr. Irene Butter, in her role as the co-founder of the Wallenberg Medal and Lecture honoring University of Michigan alumnus Raoul Wallenberg for saving the lives of 100,000 Hungarian Jews during WWII.” Ken went on to name prior Wallenberg Medal recipients “the Dalai Lama, Elie Wiesel, Helen Suzman, and Desmond Tutu.”
In concluding his introduction, Ken remarked: “Dr. Butter is a well-known peace activist, Holocaust survivor, and Professor Emerita of Public Health at the University of Michigan. She is a frequent and favored inspirational speaker…stressing the importance of two ideas: ‘one person can make a difference’ and ‘never a bystander,’ which is the title of her address today…Irene’s memoir, Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope, My True Story, will be available after the program.” Ken then noted that Dr. Butter would remain after her speech to sign copies of her book and that she was accompanied by “her husband Charlie Butter, an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Michigan…
“Ladies and gentlemen, our 2019 Robert S. Northrup Humanitarian Award recipient, Dr. Irene Butter.” At this, the whole assembly rose in unison to confer an ovation on Dr. Butter — one of the few times in this reporter’s memory that this was done before a speech.
Then, Ken, joined by Greg, Ashish, Rob, and Quincy welcomed Irene and Charlie. A stool was handily found, which Dr. Butter used to ascend to the mic.
From Dr. Butter’s memoir, Shores Beyond Shores: from Holocaust to Hope, my True Story:
“How can Auschwitz be worse than this [she asks her brother Werner]? We’ve been taken from our home. Who knows who has all our stuff we left behind. We’re bored and doing stupid work. The food we brought is gone, and the camp only has gross soup and stale bread. And we have to use a big open bathroom with no door!” I felt panic rising in my throat.
“Reni, you don’t understand…They don’t just bore you or starve you at Auschwitz. They kill you. I had to hear it a lot before I believed it. They kill people at camps like Auschwitz. They kill Jews like us….”
Dr. Butter began, softly but directly: “This story took place 75 years ago, but is it relevant to people today? [I speak] because the echoes of authoritarian government [are with us] — so it doesn’t happen again — white supremacy, and the expulsion of ethnic groups and the separation of families. This is something I can’t believe in my country.” She paused, then reflected out loud —
“I was born in Berlin. My childhood was idyllic, until Hitler. My grandfather owned a bank, where my father worked as his partner. When Hitler came to power in 1933, Jews were not allowed to [operate businesses]. They were out of work, so we moved to Holland.” Irene noticed the sighs of her listeners — ‘not far enough’ they seemed to imply. “Why? Because Holland had been neutral during World War I.” She described their happy lives in exile in Amsterdam — the photo on the cover of her book, taken at the seashore in 1939, says it all. “Then, the Nazis occupied the country, and restrictions and deprivations began immediately.” Eventually, in 1943, she and her family were rounded up and sent to “Westerbork, a transit camp [located in N.E. Netherlands]…To the east were the death camps. Father tried to get passports for the family from Sweden.” Then, after what seemed like an eternity, “we received four passports to Ecuador. We’d never gotten mail in the camp before!” With the passports came a change in status: “We were now ‘exchange Jews,” not just prisoners. However, threats were omnipresent. “A weekly train would arrive to take prisoners to the east. We counted the days, and worried every week.” Irene’s description of the black monster, sitting on the tracks in the middle of the camp, its cattle cars chalked with the tally of past occupants, is horrifying. She mentions that her family resided at Westerbork far longer than most others — 9 months. Eventually, however, they were called.
“We were being sent to another camp. We were almost hopeful…” The idea being that, as ‘exchange Jews,’ they were being relocated to a better camp before being deported to Ecuador. Irene even describes in her book that the car they occupied was “a real car,” not a boxcar for animals. Indeed, an atmosphere approaching mirth prevailed during the trip, with thoughts of improved accommodations and food.
“…until I saw the emaciated bodies. The handwriting was on the wall. Hygiene was terrible [with] epidemics of typhus and cholera. Lice were everywhere.” Exchange didn’t change much. They were in “the belly of a whale” — Bergen-Belsen. In her book Irene shows her drawing of the notorious concentration camp, located in north-central Germany: a great black pile surrounded by rows of Quonset-like barracks, with a huge chimney belching smoke. Her rapt listeners no doubt recalled the Auschwitz drawing shown a few weeks ago by Prof. Hall. It depicted the prisoner orchestra serenading fellow inmates shuffling to their day’s slave labor. Everything — people, buildings, sickly trees — was engulfed in a grimy fog; a true hellscape. Dr. Butter mercifully spared her audience the details of Bergen-Belsen. They’re delineated in the book.
“Tomorrow you will leave the camp and be exchanged,” barked a Kapo, one of the prisoner overseers assisting the German guards. After several stressful medical evaluations (her parents were gravely sick by then) “to determine your fitness for exchange,” Irene and her family were hustled aboard a Red Cross train. Destination: Switzerland. “On the second night, father died.” The ballroom reenacted the proverbial pin-drop. “So close to freedom! We had to leave him on a bench in a small German town. We made it to Switzerland, but I was sent to a [refugee] camp in Algeria because the Swiss were saying ‘we can’t take any more people.'”
Spared death in Westerbork, at Belsen, Auschwitz; her family miraculously intact; only to have to abandon her father’s body in a crummy train station, and then be separated in freedom. Rotarian faces betrayed the mental ordeal. They were right up there with Irene.
“I spent one year in Algeria before coming to the U.S. Reunited after 1 1/2 years — six months after my arrival in the U.S.” Now, a new problem. “We were stateless. All our belongings had been taken.” What did she do? She went to school. “I attended a tuition-free college in New York City, if you can imagine such a thing today.” Later she would earn her doctorate at Duke. She would meet and marry Charlie and they would teach at the U-M for 35 years. And she would learn that her father had been buried with dignity in a Jewish cemetery. “Never a bystander!” she declares. It is her mantra, her inspiration. “One person CAN make a difference…and refusing to be enemies.” She admitted it took some time before she would buy German products of any kind. But she forgave, and moved on.
The soft-spoken woman who needed a stool had become the biggest thing ever encountered by the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor…
In closing, Greg quoted Gandhi: “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.”