Topf & Söhne


At Erfurt, the former administrative building of the “builders of the Auschwitz ovens” is now a memorial center also engaging with current issues…

Former headquarter of Topf & Söhne - now a memorial place (c) Pichler Architekten Köln

Former headquarter of Topf & Söhne – now a memorial place
(c) Pichler Architekten Köln

Always glad to serve you…” This was how the Erfurt businessman Ernst-Wolfgang Topf concluded a letter to the SS construction management at Auschwitz. This cynical salutation is now inscribed on the exterior of the former administrative building of Topf & Söhne, the company that built crematoria ovens and ventilation systems for Auschwitz-Birkenau, Mauthausen, and other German concentration and death camps. For decades, the history of this factory facility was largely ignored. After the successor company, a storage and malting equipment manufacturer, went bankrupt in 1996, the premises remained unused until 2001, when it was occupied by squatters. However, two years earlier, a society had been founded to research the history of J. A. Topf & Söhne. In 2011, the state of Thuringia took up this initiative, establishing a memorial and permanent exhibition in the former administrative building. The exhibition includes many documents that show how the organization and implementation of state-organized mass murder could only be carried out with the assistance of ordinary Germans. The history of Topf & Söhne thus serves as an instructive example for the complicity of the broader population. In her book Industrie und Holocaust, Annegret Schüle, who is also curator of the memorial, writes: “With Topf & Söhne, we encounter the ordinary face of Auschwitz’s machinery of destruction, right in the midst of everyday German society.” During the Nazi era, the Erfurt engineers served as veritable technicians of death. They delivered the crematoria ovens and other technology needed to carry out murder on a mass and efficient scale. Their expertise helped the Nazis implement their murderous plans quickly and efficiently. And they knew exactly what they were doing. Company employees spent months on-site, observing and monitoring the “operational reliability” of their systems, in the process becoming witnesses to mass murder.
In the exhibition  (c) by Dirk Urban

In the exhibition
(c) by Dirk Urban

The moral debasement that resulted from this willing complicity is exemplified by Karl Prüfer (1891−1952), Topf & Söhne’s head engineer. In his early career, Prüfer had worked in the areas of waste disposal, cremation of animal corpses, and the design and construction of municipal crematoria. In 1931, Prüfer would still write, “cremation should not be debased simply to a means of cadaver disposal.” But the ovens that he would later design for the SS were intended for one purpose only: mass disposal of human beings.
Alongside historical documentation, the memorial center also focuses on questions of remembrance work and engagement with current issues. Among its notable initiatives was the November 2011 public commemoration of the victims of far-right murders, as well as several events held in commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda. The numerous educational activities of the center include eyewitness testimony such as the accounts of Hungarian Auschwitz survivor Eva Fahidi-Pusztai, discussions about recent developments in right-wing populism and extremism as well as media reports on the topic, and discussions of the nature of complicity and business ethics as a whole. The center also hosts workshops for refugees living in Thuringia and for Muslim university students on topics such as human rights and democracy. The memorial website includes a “web dialogue” section where online visitors can post their own contributions.
In the early years, there were some who argued that the memorial was harming Erfurt’s image and “soiling its own nest.” An argument to which then-head of the Jewish community of the state of Thuringia, Wolfgang Nossen, commented: “You should have given some thought to the city’s image 80 years ago!” Today the memorial is welcomed by the city and its citizens, as is also evident by its close collaboration with other local institutions. One teacher from Norway commented: “When I go home tomorrow, I’ll have questions, questions, questions.” The exhibition “Industry and Holocaust” is shown at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum until the end of October. For American audiences, an English and Spanish language version is available.

Photo Credit: (c) Pichler Architekten Köln, (c) Dirk Urban

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