Editor’s Note: Dr. Irene Butter is a Holocaust survivor. She came to the United States in 1945. Since the late 1980s, Dr. Butter has been teaching students about the Holocaust. Her memoir,
“Shores Beyond Shores,” details that journey. She is a co-founder of the Raoul Wallenberg Medal and Lecture series at the University of Michigan, and one of the founders of Zeitouna, an Arab-Jewish women’s dialogue group in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
I am a survivor of the Holocaust and a proud American. I first landed on the shores of this country in Baltimore Harbor on December 25, 1945, under a brittle blue, clear sky. My lifeboat was lowered from a Liberty ship into the watery space between ice floes and I stepped onto the land that welcomed me.
I was a 15-year-old refugee with a sixth-grade education, broken English, no money and a small knapsack of belongings. America allowed me to receive an education, build a career, a family, and a new life – away from the Nazis.
Just as America was there for me and people like me, we must now be there for America. Ours is the land of opportunity. We must now rebuild and protect it against the current fascism that threatens it.
I was born in Berlin in 1930, a Jewish girl who grew up in Nazi-occupied Europe. My childhood was quite idyllic: I had loving, funny parents and grandparents, and a beautiful, music-filled home. I was three years old when the Nazis came to power and began targeting the Jews, step by step.
Early on, Jews were forbidden from owning or working in banks under Nazi race laws, and my father lost his job. He left for Holland in search of one, as well as to escape Hitler. My family – me, my mom and older brother – were able to follow not long after. We settled in Amsterdam.
In 1940, the Nazis had occupied the Netherlands and the persecution of Jews escalated. We were eventually deported in cattle cars to Camp Westerbork in eastern Holland, and ultimately to the infamous Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in Germany.
Having barely survived hunger, forced labor, beatings, disease and cold at Bergen-Belsen, my family was included in a prisoner exchange. We were among the limited number of Jews to be traded for German civilians and boarded a train bound for Switzerland.
On January 23, 1945, my father died on the train from malnutrition and a brutal beating by the Nazis. He had gotten his family to freedom. My mother and brother were so ill that they were hospitalized immediately upon arrival in Switzerland. However, the Swiss would not let me stay with my family. So, at age 14, I was separated from them for the first time in my life and sent to a refugee camp in Algeria, North Africa.
A year later, I landed in America, and eventually was reunited with my brother and mother. Up until that moment on Baltimore’s shores, my journey had been by command and not by choice. My parents hadn’t chosen to move to Amsterdam – they were forced to. We didn’t choose to be sent to the concentration camps – we were forced to. I didn’t choose to live in Algeria alone as a refugee – I was forced to.
But finally, in America, I had choices and could exercise my free will. There were no restrictions. No yellow stars on clothing. No men with guns stopping people to see papers. Only opportunity.
Now, 75 years later, I see something I never imagined: echoes of the Nazis and their regime. What happened in Washington, DC, on January 6, 2021, was an attempted coup of our government and an unraveling of the democracy that protects all of our rights. I saw a T-shirt with the words “Camp Auschwitz,” as well as other anti-Semitic symbols and slogans used by the rioters.
Decades earlier, I heard an interview on the radio with Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who said, “If you were in the camps, if you smelled the air and heard the silence of the dead, then it’s your duty to be a witness and tell the stories.” It took me 40 years to start talking, and I am not finished yet.
The disinformation, distortion and denial of human rights and democracy that resulted in the Holocaust must not happen again. We must speak truth to fascism. The United Nations and UNESCO were founded in 1945, the same year as my liberation, in the wake of the Holocaust. Today, the UN and UNESCO educate the contemporary world about this history and how to recognize threats to democracy when they occur. Their work helps to establish an accurate historical record and encourages witnesses and others to speak out and teach truth.
The massive, violent assault on our Capitol is an awakening for us that our American democracy is vulnerable and needs protection. Democratic institutions need to be strengthened and government officials held responsible and accountable.
Four years ago, we could not have guessed that rioters with Nazi symbols would break into the Capitol to subvert a fairly elected president. None of us can afford to be a bystander to history. We all must confront racism and hatred when we see it. We must establish a record, encourage witnesses and others to speak out, and teach truth. Each of us can and must make a difference.
To me, education is the quintessential endeavor to combat the threat of fascism. The crisis in our country today brings opportunities for positive change. Each of us has the opportunity to make a choice:
- to be a survivor defined by the life we make for ourselves, and not a victim defined only by the harm done to us;
- to refuse to be enemies, seeking our common humanity;
- to never be a bystander to injustice, standing up for others even if we do not know them;
- to fill the world with love and hope, not hate and division.
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As I share my history through my book, and in schools across the country, I am overcome with gratitude and amazement at students’ wisdom and curiosity. Young people are hungry to learn how to stand up against hatred, bullying, oppression and discrimination. They are wise, strong and ready.
Let’s stand with these students and continue to educate and involve them – and allow them to educate us. They will one day be the leaders of this democracy. Let’s build a better America and a better world, together.