Human Interest

Like most children of World War II veterans, Bjorn Krondorfer knew little of his father’s time in the war. And maybe even less since his father was a soldier in the German army.

In fact, he never knew the full story of his father’s past until he was 36.

Krondorfer, an author and professor at Northern Arizona University, was the guest speaker as part of visiting scholar series sponsored by AZ Humanities. He spoke before about 50 people on Sept. 28, at the Church of the Red Rocks.

“What has the next generation, those born after 1945, learned about the Holocaust and what information, or secrets, did families pass on regarding the years of 1933 to 1945?” he said.

His father Paul was born in 1927 in Czechoslovakia but grew up in Germany and as a young boy would eventually become a member of the Hitler Youth movement. He began the presentation by showing his father as a baby but followed it with a photo of Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi death camps. While his father was not working at any concentration camp, he wanted to show the contrast between that of innocence and evil.

“When we are all born, we are born as innocent creatures,” he said. “Then, as we grow older, we accumulate various forms of mistakes, errors and guilt.

“We all grew up [in Germany], somehow knowing that something awfully wrong had happened years before. You notice that something’s not quite right when people would get nervous when you’d bring up a certain subject. You knew something was wrong.”

In the 1980s Krondorfer’s interest in the Holocaust led him to meet several survivors including Edward Gastfriend, who lost just about every member of his family in German concentration camps. He soon struck up a friendship with Gastfriend, who he said welcomed the chance to discuss the horror that he faced as a teenager. He especially wanted to tell his story to any German who wished to hear it, primarily the youth.

During one of his many discussions, Gastfriend mentioned one of the slave labor camps he was at was located in Poland called Blechhammer. At the time, he thought little of it but the name Blechhammer would eventually come to mean a lot to Krondorfer. That’s because a decade later, when his father began giving him bits and pieces about his past, he said he had been assigned to Blechhammer.

“I asked, ‘what do you mean Blechhammer?’” he said. “I said I know a Jewish person who survived Blechhammer, what were you doing there? He grew pale. Then I grew pale. We were sitting around the table and I didn’t know what to say next. At that time my parents knew about my deep interest in the Holocaust but my father had no intention in talking about it.”

He said that night is when his father began to slowly share the experiences of the past with him. He said while in Blechhamer his duty was to protect the labor camp, which made concrete, from Allied bombings.

“I asked him, did you know it was a Jewish slave labor camp — he said no,” he said. “He said in the mornings they would see prisoners in striped uniforms being marched into the factory. And that was his code word for me to understand that he was talking about Jewish prisoners. He knew that I understood what he was talking about.”

He said his father and his peers were pulled out of school at the age of 16 and were forced into the German army. A year later his father was assigned to Blechhammer from 1943 to 1944, the same time in which Gastfriend was there as a Jewish prisoner.

“From the stories I know they passed one another on this one particular road,” he said. “Edward Gastfriend told me that as they would walk every morning to the factory, they’d pass a British POW camp on the right. My father said the same thing. He said they were driven to school every morning [as a young soldier] and they would pass the British POW camp. They would actually pass one another on this road.”

Krondorfer’s father would later tell him that one of the things he remembered most when passing the prisoners was the sound of their wooden clogs as they walked on the road and that he felt sorry for them.

In 1996, Krondorfer’s father agreed to join him on a trip, which included several stops, one being the former slave camp he was assigned to 50 years earlier. He showed a slide of Blechhammer during the war and another of what it looked like 20 years ago. By then all that was left was the entry point and a guard tower. Everything else was gone and overgrown.
Being there reminded him of his friend, Edward, who at the age of 16 spent the entire day mixing cement in the factory.

“It was brutal labor,” he said. “In the winter, if you took an empty cement bag and put it under your clothes to try and keep warm, it was seen as an act of sabotage. You would be minimally beaten or executed.”

Gastfriend would eventually escape from a Nazi camp and as an adult would publish his memoirs on his experience while Paul Krondorfer would eventually become a school teacher. Bjorn Krondorfer spent years trying to convince his father to write a letter to Gastfriend with the hope that some day the two could meet. He never sent that letter and the two have still never met.


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