I went on a journey to the lovely city of Erfurt in hope of visiting the concentration camp Buchenwald which will be covered in another post. To my surprise and to my own ignorance I had no idea the company called TOPF AND SOHNE was based in Erfurt and had done its manufacturing work no less its horrific planning with the Nazi government at this base. Coming upon this place was completely shocking to me. As a memorial, as a “site” it was not advertised, it was to me, yet again, found as a secret space and I stumbled upon this all by accident.
Normally, I don’t mind this stumbling.
But when it comes to Holocaust and WW2 commemoration, I believe it is important the public, the tourists are informed. I didn’t feel this. But again, this was a visit from a few years ago. So apologies if all has changed. For now, I focus on the experience in the spring of 2014.
“At the beginning of WW2, the SS approached Topf and Sons with order for incineration ovens to equip the crematoria in the concentration camps. In order to provide its new client with fast and cheap means of incinerating corpses, the company began by supplying mobile ovens. Within a short space of time, Topf and Sons engineers went on to develop the first stationary ovens for the Buchenwald and Dachau Concentration Camps.. Topf built 66 coal-fired muffle furnaces for cremation at various camps; of which 46 operated at Auschwitz alone”
“Topf & Sons – Builders of the Auschwitz Ovens” a memorial opened by the city of Erfurt in 2011. Here, on one floor of the former plant, are diagrams of the ovens and their delivery and ventilation systems, communiqués between the SS and the Topf brass, and countless ephemera detailing the mind-numbing complacency shown by company directors and engineers under the rubric of normal business practice.
Yes, this is a furnace company that built and supplied the ovens in which millions of the Jewish population were burned after gassing or other forms of extermination. Along with Poles, Roma & Sinti, and other groups, this was about murder by gas or injection or a shot to the head, i.e. murder and then how to erase this action and all evidence as if it never happened. How to make human beings disappear completely and thoroughly, with no evidence whatsoever. These ovens did the job.
For me, the object of the “furnace” is so profound. An object that was first used by TOPF AND SONS for other reasons. In 1889, the company specialized as a manufacturer of heating systems, brewery and malting facilities. From this part of the exhibit I suppose they also did vermin extermination? Not sure.
In 1939: Ludwig and Ernst Wolfgang Topf, owners and managing directors of the family business in the third generation, begin supplying the SS and its concentration camps with corpse incineration ovens specially developed by furnace construction engineer Kurt Prüfer to meet the needs of these camps.
To wander the exhibit, to look out the window, to view the “rendering table” on which were drawn the plans for the furnaces and crematorium is just something that makes you realize how truly insane it all seemed. Rationally this was planned out, day by day. You went to work here and you planned how big the ovens would be, how many bodies would fit, etc. This was done step by step, day by day, month by month until ready to deliver. This cannot be understated. It was rationally put together and organized with the main intention of getting rid of the evidence so no one would ever know what went on in the concentration camp system. This was the norm of TOPF & SOHNE day by day. Extermination and erasure.
1942: With full knowledge of the practises of mass murder being carried out with gas at Auschwitz, the company – on the initiative of engineer Fritz Sander – applies for a patent for a “continuous-operation corpse incineration oven for mass use”.
The conscious planned extermination of human beings and then burning their bodies.
Note: Original letter from Topf & Sons to Heinrich Himmler dated 8 September 1942, about the required furnaces and their capacity.
Auschwitz: “With its new crematoria completed in 1943, Auschwitz took on the status of National Socialist Germany’s largest extermination camp. It was moreover part of a huge industrial camp complex in which the SS systematically combined mass murder and the exploitation of manpower. At least 1.1. million human beings died in Auschwitz, the primary causes of death being execution in the gas chamber, execution by shooting, abuse and abominable living conditions. More than 96,000 Jews from all over Europe, some 75,000 Poles, 21,000 Sinti & Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 15,000 inmates of various other nationalities were killed here”. (Personally, I think these numbers are too low, esp on the Russian and Polish side, and does not reveal the venal destruction of the human being.)
1945: In February 1945, Topf & Sons works on setting up a new extermination centre near Mauthausen Concentration Camp using the death factory facilities dismantled in Auschwitz-Birkenau. In April, the newly elected works council composed of Communists and Social Democrats supports the company management’s justification of its oven-supplying activities as a completely normal business relationship.
On 31 May, for fear of being arrested by the U.S. Army, Ludwig Topf commits suicide. Ernst Wolfgang Topf travels to the Western occupied zones and is prevented from returning after the Soviet army becomes the occupying force in Erfurt.
(From Internet Source: In the final year of the war, Kurt Prüfer was detained by the Americans for a few weeks before being released. At that time he was arrested by the Soviets, interrogated, and then sent to a gulag where he would stay until his death in 1952. Ludwig Topf, the firm’s chief officer at the time of the war, committed suicide in 1945. His brother, Ernst-Wolfgang fled to West Germany and was put on trial by the Americans. He claimed to be innocent, maintaining that he did not know what the incinerators were meant for, and placing all the blame on his brother Ludwig, and Prüfer. He went on to set up another incinerator company that survived until 1963 when it went bankrupt.
The company, also known as Topf of Wiesbaden, continued to produce crematoria for regular civilian funerary use through at least 1975, without changing its name.”
“The Holocaust has been characterized as an industrial project of extermination.” Enzo Traverso argues in The Origins of Nazi Violence that Auschwitz was “an authentic product of Western civilization”. Traverso describes the colonial domination during the New Imperialism period through “rational organization”, which led in a number of cases to extermination. He also insists on the industrialization and technical rationality through which the Holocaust itself was carried out by the German Nazi regime but also the deep roots of vicious antisemitism targeted at the Jewish population in Germany and all of Europe eventually.”
“When millions of human beings were killed in Auschwitz and the other German concentration and extermination camps, the murderers were faced with technical problems. The killing and disposal of the corpses was to be carried out continuously and inexpensively in a manner which economized on fuel and left as little evidence behind as possible. In order to contrive such a system, the SS had to rely on civilian experts who had no scruples about thinking their way into the practical problems of extermination and developing appropriate solutions. The Erfurt company Topf & Sons played a decisive role in this process. The exhibition tells the story of this perfectly normal German enterprise. It begins in nineteenth-century Erfurt and leads to the crematoria of Auschwitz.”
At the end of the exhibit you will see information about how the city of Erfurt and many of the population there were severely against the founding of this place as a center of study and information and commemoration. It is a place of guilt, as the evidence is so concrete.
But it seemed from the comments of the inhabitants of Erfurt, they basically didn’t want to be seen as a morbid tourist stop and have the focus be on the Holocaust and its horrors. I guess they wanted something sweet and neutral, but not the brutal reality that it seems can be found in every German city. Yet I am sure most inhabitants back away from wanting the Nazi history to be a focal point to their place of living day to day. But the truth is the truth. I sense from my own travels and living in Germany that it is a half and half feeling I get. Most are willing to talk about it, but the other half wants to be done with it.
On the day I made my visit I could not help but think Topf and Sohne still seems to have a secrecy about it. Even though I found this building, memorial and exhibit in Erfurt (it wasn’t that easy!) I could not help but notice, I seemed to be the only visiter in the building on a bright day in which tourists seemed to be wandering everywhere in the city. But not here.
There are goals and hopes of what this place can provide for the young and future generations who have no idea of this horrific history. “Topf & Sons Place of Remembrance: The educational process follows a dialogical principle. By studying and absorbing knowledge of history, young people develop a reflective awareness of history and are encouraged to arrived at their own independent assessments. Learning by research and the source-critical approach to history are the basic building blocks for a form of historical political education capable of being related to issues of relevance to the present.”
I can truly say, the exhibit was powerful, thorough, effective and put together in such a way in which one can truly see the chronology of terror and power. Also how the fervor built along with the monetary business. A company that got drawn in by the financial earnings, but also the horrible ideology they were seduced by.
I can highly recommend any Holocaust researcher make a point to visit this building and the exhibit. Again, I cannot state the case of pure disappointment in terms of “advertising” this place. It really seems that the governments and various historical sponsors have spent much money and time with this immense project. Yet, the numbers seemed quite low, especially in the spring months that I went. I was truly shocked but more saddened.
I can only hope that the amount of youth groups from schools are the major visitors, as I have found in many places such as Ravensbruck, the youth are the focus and rightfully so. This is often the case and I champion this. I am not sure what the “requirements” are with studying Holocaust in Germany, someone told me it is a very small subject but others have told me that teachers spent a lot of time on the subject. I have to further investigate this with some teacher comrades. For now, this is what I saw: a highly effective, powerfully drawn and mapped out truthful exhibit on this company, but a low attendance of visitors.