Thursday, July 21, 2005
builders scrutinized at new Berlin exhibition
BERLIN, July 21 - Hartmut Topf
has spent a lifetime trying to comprehend why family firm
Topf & Soehne agreed 64 years ago to build crematoria
and enable industrialized mass murder.
He knows there can be no satisfactory answer.
A new Berlin exhibition sheds light on Topf, one of
countless largely forgotten small firms to provide the
technical know-how for the Holocaust. It tries to trace
why this eastern German furnace maker became entangled
with the Nazis, despite
sensing what the ovens were
being used for.
Fresh archive evidence shows the brothers who ran
Topf, cousins of Hartmut's father, were not fanatic Nazis
and faced no personal risk for declining orders for
furnaces from Hitler's elite SS guards.
Nor were they in it for the money. Crematoria and
ventilation systems for the concentration camps comprised
only two percent of their turnover, and the SS paid
Rather a picture emerges of a firm of meticulous
technocrats, motivated by the "challenge" of perfecting
and installing incinerators capable of burning thousands
of corpses daily, and blinded by the detail to their
"It is unthinkable," says 70-year-old Hartmut
"It makes me furious that these were my relatives
. . . they were no anti-Semites, no evil Nazis.
They were normal people, in a completely normal firm,
which only makes it harder to understand," he adds.
A fifth of the 6 million Jews murdered during the
Holocaust were killed at Auschwitz, along with
homosexuals, Gypsies, Polish political prisoners and
Soviet prisoners of war.
The Nazi death camps employed hundreds of contractors
to provide equipment and expertise for the "Final
While the collaboration of German industrial giants
such as IG Farben, which provided deadly Zyklon B for the
gas chambers, is well documented, the role of smaller
firms and the extent to which they escaped unpunished
after World War Two has faded from view.Loaded
"I was proud as a child because Topf was a successful,
world-renowned firm," Hartmut Topf explains.
This pride evaporated when as an 11-year-old he
watched footage of the camps in cinema newsreels, and saw
the "Topf" name plaque, borne by all the firm's products,
on the crematoria of Auschwitz
Later Topf determined to establish the details and
atone for the past.
"I went to Auschwitz and greeted an old man there,
telling him my name was Topf. 'Your name has a bad ring
here,' he told me. 'I know. That is why I am here,' I
Topf & Sons was founded by Hartmut's
great-grandfather in 1878, in Erfurt, as a customized
incinerator and malting equipment manufacturer. The firm
was close to the Ettersberg hill, later the site of
Buchenwald concentration camp.
With the expansion of cremation in Germany as a burial
rite in the 1920s, the firm's ambitious chief engineer
Kurt Prüfer pioneered furnaces which complied
with strict regulations on preserving the dignity of the
Naked flame could not come in contact with the coffin,
and cremation was to be smoke and
Aware of the firm's reputation, the SS approached
Prüfer in 1939, with an order for a crematorium for
Buchenwald after an epidemic
killed hundreds of prisoners.
Prüfer designed crematoria resembling
incinerators for animal carcasses, knowing the dead were
not to be burned individually or in coffins, nor were
ashes to be separated.
The orders came rolling in, as Prüfer strived to
create more efficient furnaces. Firm documents in the
exhibition prove he visited Auschwitz several times and
saw his ovens close to "the bathhouses for special
Rather than feel disgust, Prüfer merely
deliberated the practical problems of extermination.
Transcripts of his 1948 interrogations by Russian forces
show he never felt remorse.
"Prüfer threatened to resign at one point over
lack of salary, they (Ernst-Wolfang and Ludwig
Topf) should have let him go . . . but they
didn't. They continued to show this stupid loyalty to the
regime," Topf says.
After the Nazis abandoned Auschwitz in
Prüfer even suggested to the SS they could
reassemble parts of the furnaces in Mauthausen
concentration camp in Austria.
"It sends shivers down my spine," Topf adds.Aftermath
Topf name plates on the ovens couldn't have made it
easier for the Allies to trace the firm.
The Americans released Prüfer after a few weeks,
but once the Soviets arrived in Erfurt he was sentenced
to 25 years and died in 1952 in a Russian gulag.
Ludwig Topf killed himself in May 1945, claiming his
innocence in a jumble of excuses left in a suicide
His brother Ernst-Wolfgang fled to western Germany and
was put on trial by the Americans. He talked his way out
of the charges, maintaining the ovens were "innocent",
and founded a new incinerator business, operating until
bankruptcy in 1963.
He even tried unsuccessfully to secure a patent for a
"monster four-storey" furnace designed during the war,
Hartmut Topf explains.
"There was no historical insight at the time. Only
excuses and pleas that people could have done nothing
else. It makes me sick."
Today, Topf & Sons former Erfurt premises stand
empty and dilapidated. The firm was nationalized by the
Communists and survived until 1996. Authorities plan to
buy the site and set up a permanent
exhibition and memorial.