Kris Holloway is a woman of many talents. Besides operating as the Global Leadership League’s Director of Programs, Kris “serves as the President of CIS Abroad, a leading education abroad organization whose vision is to create a more compassionate and connected world, one student at a time.” One of the many applications of Kris’ talents was her work in helping to document and compile the story of Irene Butter, a survivor of the Holocaust and a concentration camp, and the League’s presenter for our recent International Women’s Day 2022 event.
“Irene Butter spent a part of her childhood in Nazi-controlled concentration camps, where she survived horrible conditions and tragedies. She tells her story on behalf of the six million other Jews who have been permanently silenced. Irene's account celebrates the exercising of empathy for others in even the most inhumane conditions, a relevant message in an age where similar hatreds and discrimination rise once again.”
As a longtime friend and confidante of Irene’s, Kris knew that Irene’s story had to be documented and shared in a respectful manner. We recently sat down with Kris to learn more about how she went about the process of sharing another woman’s powerful story and what she feels she learned from the experience.
How does someone best go about writing a book for someone else and maintaining that respect and authenticity for their story?
I had experience because my first book I wrote about a West African midwife that I lived and worked with in the Peace Corps and how she died in childbirth. Because she died, I wrote her story and I knew that I had to tell the story of this midwife, and how she lived, in order for people here in the U.S. to care about her death. And so, prior to writing with Irene, I had experience with the responsibility I had writing as a white woman about a black West African woman. I thought a lot about this from a narrative ethnographic sense and also from a personal sense.
Irene asked me and my husband John to write her story. She had years of experience talking to middle school and high school students as she told of her journey through the Holocaust. And even though it was hard to talk about these memories of loss, her belief in the power of young people to change the world kept her energized. And, her one ask of us as writers was that we maintained the voice of the child in the narrative. She wanted to portray a hopeful message of “If I can do this, you can too. If I can be a survivor, you can too.” That was the guiding lens of how we wrote the book – staying true to her young voice.
What that looked like, in reality, is that the writing process was iterative. I developed character sketches so that each character in Irene’s story looked and behaved consistently to who they were. I had to know when Irene looks stressed, what does she do? When Irene talks, how does she sound? And, the book was written in English, even though Irene spoke German in her childhood, and then when her family went to Amsterdam she spoke solely in Dutch there, and then through the camps she continued speaking in Dutch, and then when she went to the refugee camp after the war, she spoke Dutch and learned English and French. So, I had to focus on how to stay true to her voice despite the change in language. To be trusted to tell a Holocaust survivor’s story felt really big. I felt the responsibility for grounding it in truth and fact.
Irene was amazingly brave as the writing opened up memories she had not known she had. My husband and I divvied up scenes to write based on our knowledge and interests. I would write a scene with our character sketches, and I would send it to Irene and then we would meet on Skype, and she would be like “Nope, nope, nope. That’s wrong.” She wouldn’t know what I got wrong until I wrote it wrong and then it would open up her memory to say, “Oh, now I remember. It wasn’t the smell of daffodils, it was crocuses…” or whatever the detailmight be. So, every time we wrote it would open up something else like this, and we would go back and forth in conversation. Then we would read it out loud so that Irene could feel that it was coming from within her. The bravery she had to be willing to see things that would have been easy to not see was incredible.
How do you balance deep diving into this heavy topic and maintaining your daily life with children, work, significant others, etc?
First, I scheduled the time as if it was a second job. I had goals and deadlines. So much of writing just showing up and doing the work. Over and over. It is not anything magical.
Second, and this is where there is a bit of magic, was around creating ritual to ground myself in the ‘Why.’ You can have discipline but be uninspired. So, to keep that inspiration, I would look at pictures of her family as they went through the Holocaust. I would listen to Enya, which is super cheesy but I just love Enya, so I would listen to her, light a candle, and look at photos of Irene’s family. I would ground myself in the reasons why I am going to spend two hours on a gorgeous 70 degree afternoon inside doing this work instead of outside with friends or family. So that created this space that is sort of sacred, kind of time-out-of -ime, so that I could maintain my energy for the work.
I think as international educators we are used to being committed to our work, and having to harness energy for it even during hard times. Hmmm… maybe like a pandemic that halts student mobility for two years! So, it was kind of just building on that same kind of energy that is resplendent in our field in many ways. This story is one of showcasing how we have got to work across all our perceived differences so that we can actually co-create a better world.
How can we incorporate Irene's message into our daily lives?
I think two things. One is to assume best intentions. unless we have a reason not to. Because there is so much that is hurtful, and we are all edgy coming out of the pandemic. Before we jump to escalate, and punish, and demonize, can we step in with some kindness? Can we assume best intentions before reacting to everything that we disagree with? Can we just have a little gentleness? Irene has taught me to just take a breath, don’t react, and just notice and listen. Then when I’m a little more grounded, be curious. And that has been so helpful for me.
Two, is the opposite. If we know there are bad intentions, like if we see bullying happen, we must simply show up. Sometimes there is a natural “look the other way” kind of response. Like it is someone else’s problem. The pandemic has been hard on humans, on families, on communities. If we see someone experiencing suffering, let’s stand with them. And this has kindness in it, but it is also a braver than just that. It involves risk. How can we expand the definition of who our brothers and sisters are and how can we intervene in order to prevent suffering? I think for your average person, if we can just make these small choices that take a little time and small dose of bravery, it makes a difference.
What was the hardest part for you about translating or helping to relay this story?
Probably the editing process. There were certain parts of her story that I found really interesting to learn about and write about, that through the editing process it was clear that the narrative was stronger without them. I think that was probably the hardest part – letting go of some of the writing and different scenes that I just loved.
And also, it just took a while, so took some patience with the process as I just wanted to get it out in the world. We so wanted her to be part of the book’s launch before she got too old. She’s 91! It was hard feeling that time crunch.
The blessing of it all was the closeness- Irene feels like my older sister. She feels like family and really, who gets that? Who gets to have a 91-year-old older sister when you are my age? It has been such a source of joy, even in the suffering of the story. That has been the biggest, most unexpected outcome of doing this project together. Then we had a reason to meet, and now we are not writing anymore but we keep meeting anyway. I go to Ann Arbor frequently, and Irene has just finished a podcast in German, she just appeared on Dutch news show, and has a CNN special- she is just going gang-busters. And, the book has been translated in Dutch, Portuguese, Czech, and will be out in German this summer. Sometimes I am involved in some of that and sometimes I just hear about it through her agent, and it is just fabulous and so much fun. I love riding her coattails. How fabulous and long the coattails are of this 5 ft 1 in woman.
What, if anything, did this project help show to you or reveal to you about working in international education?
How do we weave story into what we do? Whether that is literally using the book and her journey as an itinerary for faculty led program, or how we help our students make sense of their own experiences in another culture.
It made me realize the importance of expanding our definition of family and community across boundaries, meaning you’re responsible for me and I am responsible for you in some shared capacity, because if we can expand that, then it is much harder to invade, attack, or ignore the suffering of others. It made me appreciate my citizenship and think about what it means to have the privilege of having a country to call home, and to help those who don’t have this power or protection. It seems so similar to the reasons that we are in the international ed field to begin with, because otherwise, why would we be here?
The last thoughts I want to share are to give kudos to the individuals in the Global Leadership League- all the volunteers and participants who are keeping a safe space alive for people to come together in this field and continue to grow. Because that is how it is going to grow back and grow back better.
If you are interested in learning more about Irene Butter, her story, and the published book ‘Shores Beyond Shores: From Holocaust to Hope, My True Story’ join The League on 12 May, 2022, at 11:00 AM (EDT) for a virtual book discussion. Learn more here. As well, learn more about Kris’ organization, CISAbroad, here.
The mission of the Global Leadership League is to ignite change across the global education field by empowering, connecting, and training leaders. We invite you to reach out to us here or learn more about becoming a member.