Professor emeritus Irene Butter wins humanitarian award

Wednesday, May 15, 2019 - 5:35pm

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Max Kuang/Daily

Irene Butter, University of Michigan professor emerita of health management and policy, received the 2019 Robert S. Northrup Humanitarian Award at the Rotary Club of Ann Arbor’s weekly lunch meeting. Butter was honored for her peace activism and philanthropic work. A Holocaust survivor and author, Butter speaks frequently to students and activists in the Ann Arbor area about how to resist being a bystander and prevent infringements upon democracy.

The award was established by the Rotary Club in 2018 to recognize the achievements of Northrup, a member of the club who worked in the fields of medicine and public health serving underprivileged and developing communities. 

The prize celebrates those who have made considerable contributions to the public good and worked selflessly for the benefit of others. Butter is the second recipient of the award after Northrup himself.

Originally from Berlin, Butter survived two concentration camps and was eventually sent to a refugee base in Algeria, where she was separated from her mother and brother. Her father, who used connections to keep the family together in the camps, was beaten days before leaving the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Northern Germany and died from his wounds shortly after they were released. In 1945, Butter left Algeria for the United States. Butter said telling her story allows her to show students how critical it is not to forget past violations of human rights, especially in today’s political climate.

“My main goal is that people see the connection between the Holocaust that happened 75 years ago and what we see happening in our world these days,” Butter said. “I’m particularly interested in reaching young people because they don’t know that much about the history, and they’re not aware of the dangers of authoritarian governments and dictatorships that take away the freedom of the people.”

Kenneth Fisher, former president of the University Musical Society and current member of the Rotary Club, nominated Butter for the award and introduced her at the April 24 meeting. He said Butter’s resilience in the face of adversity and willingness to tell her story publicly made her an ideal candidate for the prize. 

“She embodies what I think Rotary had in mind for the kind of person that would be honored,” Fisher said. “She has such outstanding character, love, and (is a) champion of justice. These are all things that Rob (Northrup) as a medical doctor stood for. … When the plaque was given to Irene, he was there, and it was very touching to have the two of them together as the first and second recipients of this award.”

In May 2018, Butter unveiled her memoir, “Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope My True Story,” at a public event held in the Ann Arbor District Library. Butter has also spoken at rallies on the Diag protesting family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border and at numerous Ann Arbor public schools. She said the book and school visits serve as a tangible record of her memories that will carry on her legacy for the next generations of students. 

“Someday, when I won’t be able to go to schools anymore, then the book is available that teachers can use to tell my story,” Butter said. “And it’s really the same message of never being a bystander, refusing to be enemies; one person can make a difference. I think it’s important to tell students that many people have trauma in their lives, even young people do — illness, loss of a family member, divorce, all kinds of crises — but that doesn’t have to be the end.”

Mary Bisbee-Beek, Butter’s independent book publicist, worked to print “Shores Beyond Shores” and has since helped plan the book tour following the 2018 publication. Bisbee-Beek said the book and subsequent tour allowed for increased dialogue about current events and their relation to past instances of discrimination. 

“The groundswell of emotion that you feel when you walk into a venue with her and there are 1,000 people sitting there, it’s amazing,” Bisbee-Beek said. “... We’ve started doing events where we invite someone of note to be in conversation with her, and that’s really wonderful. When two people who have smart outlooks, similar ideas about how the world should work versus how it does work, who are both good storytellers, when they’re up on stage together, it can be a really magical hour.”

As a professor at the University, Butter also helped found the Wallenberg Medal award and Lecture named after University alum and Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg is most widely known for his work rescuing thousands of Hungarian Jews in Budapest, actions which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment by Soviet police forces in 1944. 

Butter highlighted the importance of Wallenberg’s work and said the award is meant to honor a man who acted selflessly despite being a victim of injustice. 

“He is said to have saved tens of thousands of Jews at that time, and he was never honored here,” Butter said. “Unfortunately, he was imprisoned by the Russians at the end of 1944 and, for somebody who saved so many people, the world was not able to save him, because after he was imprisoned, no one ever saw him again. So, he risked his life by being human and trying to save other people.”

Recent University graduate Carly Marten is the 2019 recipient of the Wallenberg Fellowship, an award of $25,000 given to a senior who showed dedication to serving the public good to fund postgraduate research. Marten, who is moving to Ethiopia to work in a sexual assault clinic and help women navigate the Ethiopian legal system, said Wallenberg’s actions made her realize those with a certain level of privilege must use it for the benefit of others. 

“I see him as being someone who was interested in transnational cooperation and collaboration and using his resources and the background he came from in order to benefit people who did not have those same resources,” Marten said. “So that’s primarily where I see myself fitting into that kind of schema.”

Bisbee-Beek echoed Marten’s statement and said Butter has used her trauma and experience as a survivor to serve society and those around her, making her deserving of the Northrup Humanitarian award. 

“Irene is not only a survivor of the Holocaust, but she is someone who has taken those experiences and turned them into being a very proactive humanitarian and peace activist, teacher, good neighbor, stellar citizen,” Bisbee-Beek said. “She’s everything.”

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