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Thursday, July 21, 2005

Auschwitz oven 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 for Auschwitz 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 late.

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 moral crime.

"It is unthinkable," says 70-year-old Hartmut Topf.

"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 Solution".

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 name

"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 and Buchenwald.

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 answered."

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 body.

Naked flame could not come in contact with the coffin, and cremation was to be smoke and odour free.

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 operations".

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 [January] 1945 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.


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 note.

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.


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