Bjorn Krondorfer is worried about what lessons from the Holocaust people will remember and apply to the present.

Krondorfer, director of the Martin-Springer Institute of Northern Arizona University (NAU) and a professor of comparative cultural studies, looks to Russian emigre, New Yorker staff writer and LGBTQ activist Masha Gessen to bridge the lessons of the past to the present rise of global totalitarianism. Gessen will be speaking at NAU’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day event on Jan. 27. 

“It is a rare opportunity for students at NAU to be exposed to such an active, intellectual mind, fearless journalist, and also LGBTQ advocate, especially in the regions of Eastern Europe,” Krondorfer said. “The talk will center on how the imagination of individuals and entire societies are shaped by what we remember, or the stories we can tell about what we remember.”

Born in Moscow, Gessen worked as a journalist for multiple outlets and has written several books.

In 2013, Gessen left Russia for New York City after witnessing an increase in antigay violence.

One of Gessen’s books, “Ester and Ruzya: How my Grandmothers Survived Hitler’s War and Stalin’s Peace,” looks at two of the deadliest totalitarian regimes in the 20th century by using Gessen’s own Jewish-Russian family history. 

Described as Russia’s leading LGBTQ rights activist, Gessen will be focusing on topics such as political science, journalism and history. 

Having lived as a journalist in Moscow, and with family ties to Polish and Russian Jewry during the Holocaust and Stalin’s reign, Gessen also explores issues of political choice.

Gessen has written extensively on the rise of totalitarian regimes in Russia, specifically on Vladimir Putin. 

Gessen’s latest book, “The Future is History,” follows the lives of four individuals who were born during Russia’s dawn of democracy, only to see their country devolve back into autocratic leadership.  

This most recent book will be the basis of Gessen’s lecture at the Martin-Springer Institute event. 

“Totalitarian regimes aim to make choice impossible” Gessen said. “What interests me now is that I think resistance can take the shape of making a choice, even when the choice is framed as one between unacceptable options.” 

The Martin-Springer Institute was founded by Holocaust survivor Doris Martin and her husband, Ralph, in 2000. 

On the institute’s website, the Martins state that their mission is to apply the lessons of the Holocaust “in order to relate them to today’s concerns, crises and conflicts. Our programs promote the values of moral courage, tolerance, empathy, reconciliation and justice.”

Doris Martin wrote about her family’s survival in the book, “Kiss Every Step: A Survivor’s Memoir from the Holocaust.”

In past International Holocaust Remembrance Day events, the Martin-Springer Institute has brought in film director Spike Lee, Rwandan humanitarian Paul Rusesabinga and Father Patrick Dubois.

Dubois is the leader of the French organization Yahad-In Unum, which locates the mass graves of Jewish victims of Nazi mobile killing units.

Krondorfer has been the institute’s director since 2012 and has followed Gessen’s work for a while. 

He believes that Gessen’s commentary is worth examining and says the writer’s experience provides a strong perspective on the rise of totalitarianism. 

This lecture is important, Krondorfer said, because Gessen has personally witnessed how a country can change its political landscape. 

“My hope is that people, especially students, walk away from the event understanding that democracies cannot be taken for granted,“ Krondorfer said. “They are fragile and they need our investment.” 

Krondorfer said history doesn’t simply go away with each generation’s passing. He stated that history can repeat itself, but never in the exact same way. 

He anticipates that Gessen’s lecture will help illustrate what to look for in the greater conversation of approaching totalitarianism and its true effects on the people who endure it. 

Gioia Woods, a professor of humanities at NAU, will be introducing Gessen at the event. 

She thinks that Gessen’s teachings are especially relevant to students in colleges now as the “creep” of totalitarianism and authoritarianism becomes more potent and timely. 

“Masha argues that if a nation silences its academics and drives its sociologists, psychologists and philosophers into a corner, it cannot know itself, nor will it have the tools to save itself,” Woods said. “It’s important for students to understand that their studies have real consequences for their lives and the life of democracy.

“Masha’s skill as a storyteller is incisive. Masha is able to animate the human costs of totalitarianism in vividly rendered real-life characters.” JN


The Masha Gessen lecture will be held on Sunday, Jan. 27 at 7 p.m. in the Prochnow Auditorium at NAU. The event is free and open to the public. 

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