The engineers of the Holocaust
“Always willing to serve you.”
This cheerful slogan was the motto of Topf & Sons, a German company based in the eastern city of Erfurt.
Founded by master brewer Johann Andreas Topf (1816-1891) in 1878 as a manufacturer of incineration facilities, Topf & Sons would soon become the world’s leading manufacturer of malting equipment for breweries. By the late 19th century, it was making grain and rice silos as well as steam boilers. In 1914, it introduced a new line of crematorium furnaces.
The global financial crisis of the 1930s nearly pushed the firm into insolvency. But the Nazi government’s decision in 1937 to establish the Buchenwald concentration camp, located just 20 kilometres from Erfurt, saved Topf & Sons from oblivion.
The camp, administered by the SS, had a problem. How could it efficiently dispose of the corpses of inmates who had contracted typhus and died in Buchenwald? A Topf engineer named Kurt Prufer, who was born and raised in Erfurt, had the answer. He had designed an incineration oven, bearing the Topf logo, that met the demands of the SS in every respect.
By the spring of 1941, Topf and its main competitor in Berlin, Heinrich Kori, which had participated in Germany’s euthanasia program, had installed ovens in Dachau, Mauthausen and Auschwitz-Birkenau. The ovens were technologically advanced. They burned a maximum of bodies quickly, using a minimum of fuel and leaving behind as little odour and physical evidence as possible.
Topf also developed the ventilation and exhaust systems for the ovens, not to mention their accessories: the carts for loading corpses into the ovens and the fire hooks for moving body parts.
A family business run by owners Ludwig and Ernst-Wolfgang and employing 1,150 workers at its peak, Topf played a decisive role in the Holocaust, as a fairly new memorial and museum, The Engineers of the Final Solution: Topf & Sons, Builders of the Auschwitz Ovens, outlines in chilling detail.
Opened on Jan. 27, 2011 to coincide with the 66th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz by Red Army troops, it is housed in Topf’s former administrative building, which is owned by a private investor today.
The museum, a devastating indictment of the role industry played in the Holocaust, attracted about 12,000 visitors last year, mainly students from Germany, Poland and Israel, said Rebekka Schubert, a member of the staff.
The exhibit, which leaves a powerful impact on a visitor, begins in a staircase with a visual and written history of the Topfs, a perfectly normal and upwardly mobile German family, and proceeds to the upper floors.
The joint office of Ludwig and Ernst-Wolfgang, however, is closed and off-limits to visitors.
All but two of the windows are papered over. One window exposed to the outside offers a view of Buchenwald’s mountaintop clock tower in the far distance. Another window permits visitors to see the railway line on which freight trains transported equipment to extermination camps.
The exhibits in glass cases, which are fixed to the floor in spaces where engineers and draftsmen laboured to refine the machinery of death ordered by the architects of the Holocaust, are brutally clinical.
Documents, some of which were photocopied from Yad Vashem’s collection, include correspondence between the SS and Topf.
In one letter, dated Aug.19, 1942, an SS officer summarizes discussions on the construction of four crematoria in Auschwitz. The language is precise and bureaucratic, as if the topic under consideration was, say, apples or oranges.
In another letter, written by Prufer on Jan. 29, 1943, he assures SS chieftain Heinrich Himmler that “despite the scale of the construction and difficulties in conjunction with the weather conditions and the procurement of materials, work has proceeded apace.”
Although the Topf brothers clung to the convenient illusion that they had behaved honourably in discharging their duties, they were totally complicit in the mass murder of millions of Jews.
The Topfs, along with Prufer, joined the Nazi party in 1933, the year Adolf Hitler assumed power as Germany’s chancellor. By all accounts, they were neither fanatical Nazis nor rabid antisemites, just hard-headed entrepreneurs eagerly cashing in on an unprecedented business opportunity.
The Topfs employed, among others, Communists and Germans of partial Jewish ancestry, apparently protecting them from persecution and deportation. But Topf was not forced to work for the Nazis and was wholly complicit in the implementation of the Holocaust.
To be sure, the Topfs fully understood what the ovens and ventilation and exhaust systems would be used for. After all, their employees installed, tested and maintained this equipment.
Prufer, who visited Auschwitz-Birkenau at least a dozen times, admitted under Russian interrogation in 1945 that “innocent human beings were being liquidated in Auschwitz gas chambers and that their corpses were incinerated.”
Prufer went to great lengths to please the SS. He and his assistant, Fritz Sander, developed a four-storey “continuous-operation corpse incineration oven for mass use” that could have incinerated more Jews than believed possible. The project, though approved of by the SS, was not carried through to completion.
Although Prufer never denied his complicity, he exhibited no sense of guilt. He and his associates were sent to prison for 25 years. He died of a stroke in 1952.
The Topfs did not fare much better.
Ludwig, after learning that the U.S, occupation army planned to investigate him, committed suicide in 1945. “I was unfailingly decent, the opposite of a Nazi,” he wrote in a farewell letter.
His brother, Ernst-Wolfgang, who was never imprisoned, founded a company specializing in the production of refuse incineration ovens, but it went bankrupt. He died in 1979.
At the end of World War II, Topf & Sons reinvented itself as a manufacturer of facilities for the food industry. The company was subsequently expropriated by the communist East German state. When the building fell into a state of disrepair, it was occupied by squatters. “It was just in ruins,” said Schubert.
In 2003, after the site was declared a landmark of historical significance, it was bought by a developer and renovated.
Contemplating Topf & Sons’ complicity in the extermination of six million Jews and the educational role the museum can now play, Schubert said, “My hope is that young people will recognize that everyone has a choice of choosing good over evil.”