“I have been back to the places where I was supposed to die. I went back with my children and again with my oldest grandchild. I went back with my family – as a survivor,” said Irene Butter, a retired University public health professor.
Butter was one of three Holocaust survivors who shared their stories Friday night as part of University Hillel’s 24th Annual Conference on the Holocaust. This year’s conference, titled “Representations of the Holocaust: A look back through a different lens,” emphasizes the media’s role in shaping both individual’s and the world’s perception of the Holocaust.
Butter was born in Berlin to an upper-class Jewish family. Her father fought with his country during World War I, earning a medal of honor. “We considered ourselves German first and Jewish second,” Butter said.
In 1937, her family left Germany for Holland, where her father had found work. Leaving behind both sets of grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, her family was safe for three years, until the Nazis took the Netherlands.
“Severe restrictions were imposed on Jews, but they were nothing compared to what would come,” Butter said. “The Nazis blocked off parts of the city and no one could leave. They went door to door, asking for papers. Jewish families had 10 minutes to pack and then they had to leave. My mother made us wear many layers of clothing, knowing we would only have what we could wear and carry. I remember it was so hot. They pushed 40 to 60 people in cattle cars and took them to Camp Westerbork, a transit camp. …Every Saturday, a train would come back from Auschwitz and sit there for days. Then they would read the names of those who had to go; if someone’s name was called, you never saw them again.”
Butter’s family was not taken to Auschwitz, but to the concentration camp Bergen Belsen, where “every morning you would wake up and see who was still alive.”
LSA sophomore Yael Holoshitz said he wanted to learn about survivor’s personal stories to keep their messages alive by sharing them with others in the future.
“A lot of people who know first-hand what happened are getting older and soon won’t be able to tell their stories,” Holoshitz said. “I want to be able to tell their stories.”
Miriam Brysk, who at age eight hid from the Nazis in a forest near Lida, Poland, recounted her experience of living in a plank-covered hole in the ground for two years, while her father, a surgeon, performed daily operations for wounded Jews without antibiotics.
“My father allowed me to watch all of his work except the abortions he performed for women who had been raped by German soldiers,” said Brysk. “I had a shaved head and wore boys clothes so I wouldn’t be raped. Many of the other children, however, were smothered to death for fear they would yell out and give everyone away.”
Jon Lim, an LSA sophomore, attended the panel’s presentation to learn more about individuals’ personal experiences.
“People think the Holocaust happened a long time ago, but there are people here who lived through it,” Lim said. “Listening to their stories is more valuable than going to a museum or reading a book.”
Eva Kor, who with her twin sister Miriam had been a part of Josef Mengele’s medical experiments, presented a message of forgiveness. “Forgive your worst enemy,” said Kor. “It will heal your soul and set you free.”
Kor was 10 years old in the spring of 1944, when she became ill after an injection in Mengele’s lab. Told she had two weeks to live and given no food or medicine and little water, Kor spent the next five weeks in the hospital – a place, it was rumored, from where no one returned. Kor, however, did recover and was reunited with her twin sister Miriam. The two were experimented on until Jan. 27 – four days before her eleventh birthday – when “the guns were silent because the Soviet Army had liberated Auschwitz.”
Although the Nazis killed her family and subjected her and her sister to torturous medical experiments, Kor said she has forgiven them.
“Healing through forgiveness is my legacy from Auschwitz,” Kor said.
The survivor’s memories left Victoria Shapiro, an LSA freshman, with a sense of hope and self-evaluation. “I was really inspired by their recollections,” Shapiro said.
“They really forced me to reevaluate what I get upset about and make me marvel at the human spirit.”
“The goal of the conference is to bring the lessons of the Holocaust and its history to as many people as possible. There is always more to learn,” said Courtney Rangen, LSA senior and conference chair.
“When I tell friends from other places that in Ann Arbor we have a week-long Holocaust remembrance with the reading of victims’ names, scheduled programs and survivor speakers, they are surprised,” Brysk said.
“Most people are good if they remember it one night year at the synagogue. Here, in Ann Arbor where there are 108,000 people, we do it for a full week. I have lived in other college towns and I have never seen this before.”
The weeklong conference will conclude Wednesday with a 7:30 lecture by Dan Raviv, a Washington-based National Correspondent for the CBS radio network, at Rackham Auditorium.