Born in Berlin, Germany, Irene Butter grew up as a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Europe. A survivor of two concentration camps she came to the US in 1945. After graduating from Queens College in New York City she obtained a Ph.D. in economics from Duke University. She and her husband were on the faculty of the University of Michigan for more than 35 years.

Since the late 1980’s she has been teaching students about the Holocaust and the lessons she learned during those traumatic years. She is a co-founder of the Raoul Wallenberg lecture series at the University of Michigan and also one of the founders of Zeitouna, an Arab/Jewish Women's Dialogue group in Ann Arbor.