Björn Krondorfer had been studying the Holocaust for 10 years before he made an important discovery: His father had been at a Jewish slave labor camp in German-occupied Poland at the same time as Edward Gastfriend, a Holocaust survivor Krondorfer had befriended in the United States.
German-born Krondorfer is the director of the Martin-Springer Institute at Northern Arizona University. The institute was founded in 2000 by Doris Martin, a Holocaust survivor, and her husband, Paul, with the mandate of using the Holocaust as a starting point and raising awareness about hate ideology and genocide today.
In 1996, Krondorfer’s father, Paul, was sharing a story with him about the war and mentioned the name of the camp, Blechhammer, as one of the places he had been stationed. “I had to stop and say, ‘What do you mean you were at this place? Do you know that this (was) a Jewish slave labor camp?’” That’s when Krondorfer learned that his father, at age 17, was “pulled out of high school and put into a German army uniform,” and tasked with protecting the chemical factory at Blechhammer from British and American bombing raids.
Intrigued by the coincidence, Krondorfer listened to the stories of both men. “In all likelihood they met, not directly, but at certain points in their stories it’s clear they’re talking about the same place,” Krondorfer says. “It’s a very eerie part of my journey because I had no idea. I didn’t know my family history.”
Krondorfer, who received a Ph.D. in (Comparative) Religious Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, says that “just about every German ... anyone who begins thinking about who (they) are,” is confronted with the legacy of the Holocaust. “I made the choice that I wanted to learn more.”
Eventually, Krondorfer took his father on a five-day trip to Blechhammer, which they found overgrown in the Polish forest. “During the journey I saw him really cry over his past,” he says. Krondorfer made the trip with the intention of publishing a story about it. “(My father) was the first to read it and give me feedback. It’s complicated. None of these things are easy.”
While in Philadelphia, Krondorfer helped Gastfriend publish his memoir, “My Father’s Testament,” an account of Gastfriend’s experience during the Holocaust, including his time at Blechhammer. “This was after (Gastfriend) knew the story about my father and after he knew that I traveled to Poland,” he says. “In many ways it could have been the end of any relationship between him and me, but it actually deepened our trust with each other that I shared what I knew.”
After Temple University, Krondorfer spent 20 years on the faculty of St. Mary’s College in Maryland. When the position at the Martin-Springer Institute opened up, Krondorfer applied and was invited to NAU along with three other candidates. After his presentation, Krondorfer had a 30-minute conversation with Doris Martin. “She was a little surprised – a little skeptical and then we started talking and I guess she realized that I am a trustworthy person,” he says.
As director of the institute, Krondorfer administers programs that “raise awareness about the traumatic scope of the Holocaust and its continuous impact on contemporary society,” and addresses complex themes including hate ideology, prejudice, anti-Semitism, discrimination and diversity. In the fall, programs are centered on Holocaust-related topics; in the spring, the institute offers a speaker series that looks at contemporary global problems.
Last spring, Krondorfer started a year-long project for the institute that engages 12 NAU students from different disciplines who are learning about the ghetto in which founder Doris Martin’s family survived in Poland. “We researched it historically and this fall, the same group of students are turning it into a traveling exhibit that will be available to schools, community centers, religious centers and whoever wants to have it,” Krondorfer says. “We’re going to present this ghetto through the eyes of the youth and tell the story from what we can recover from the archives and testimonies.”
The students are grappling with how they want the exhibit to end, Krondorfer says. Should they draw explicit parallels to issues today or make suggestions for people to think about?
“It’s now for this new generation to come up with some answers,” he says. “I’m not even guiding them.”