Synopsis

Never a Bystander is a short documentary that introduces audiences to Irene Butter, a Holocaust survivor with a remarkable capacity to reframe the trauma she endured as a child growing up in Nazi Germany. Throughout the film, Butter is warmly embraced as she takes her story to school children. Butter's uplifting message and her impact on young people moves viewers to compassion, forgiveness, and empowered action. 

Never a Bystander opens with images of middle school students asking Butter about her life in the Bergen-Belsen and Westerbork concentration camps as a young girl:

“How did you brush your teeth?"

"What kind of food did you have to eat in the camps?

"Did you ever think of running away?"

Butter answers with grace and candor in an engrossing narrative that combines classroom shots with historical photos, newsreel, and snippets of Butter’s home and work life in the United States after she escaped Nazi Germany.

She shares how she discovered the possibility of choosing one’s identity no matter what tragedies have occurred, and speaks to questions about forgiveness and the role of the bystander, never preaching. Discussions with youth include the topic of bullying—a message that seems to hit home with students in the film. They respond by opening their hearts with gratitude and respect.

Butter’s story includes details of her family's experience during the Holocaust and her heartbreaking connection to Anne Frank. Unlike Anne, Irene survives and goes on to create a life rich in career, family, love, and service after the war. Her peace activism leads to meeting the Dalai Lama and Miep Gies, the Amsterdam woman who sheltered Anne Frank's family. Gies offers her own wisdom on courage and heroism.

The film's director, Evelyn Neuhaus, is a first-time filmmaker and the daughter of Holocaust survivors who has begun to reframe her own difficult history as a result of making the film.  Reflecting on the what it was like to film Irene Butter over five years of production, Neuhaus echoes the comment in a student's letter to Butter:

“She has inspired me to make my life a story worth telling.”

 

Image of a split screen showing Irene Butter as a young girl on the left, and a 21st century student during a Q-and-A with Irene on the right.

At left, young Irene Butter. At right, a classroom shot from the film showing students in a Q-and-A session with Irene

Camp Bergen-Belsen (Germany), shown at the camp's liberation in spring 1945.

Students line up for hugs at a school visit in Detroit.

Students line up for hugs at a school visit in Detroit.