Topf & Söhne: Builders of the Auschwitz Ovens
A Place of Remembrance
Dr Annegret Schüle
99099 Erfurt, Germany
Phone: +49 (0)361 655 1681
A monograph (German version) on the history of the company may be ordered here.
The guide (German verison) to the travelling exhibition can be ordered here.
The web site of the Topf & Söhne Memorial can be found here.
Analyzing and documenting the history of the J. A. Topf & Söhne company
The Buchenwald Memorial first began researching the history of the J. A. Topf & Söhne company in February 2002 under the direction of Dr Volkhard Knigge, with Dr Annegret Schüle leading the research team. The result was the international travelling exhibition “The Engineers of the ‘Final Solution’: Topf & Söhne – Builders of the Auschwitz Ovens”, presented by the Buchenwald and Mittelbau-Dora Memorials Foundation in collaboration with the Jewish Museum of Berlin and the Auschwitz State Museum. Created under the direction of Dr Knigge by Rikola-Gunnar Lüttgenau (curator), Dr Annegret Schüle, Friedemann Rincke, Wolfgang Röll and Johanna Wensch, the exhibition opened in the Jewish Museum of Berlin in June 2005, and went on to be presented in five German and four European cities through October 2010. Afterwards, the Memorials Foundation made the exhibition available, free of charge, to the newly-established "place of remembrance" at the former site of the company in Erfurt. The exhibition was expanded under the direction of Dr Annegret Schüle, who converted it into a permanent exhibition and added an open-air installation. It opened at the Erfurt site in January 2011. This project represents the first time in the history of the Federal Republic that the complicity of German industry in the Holocaust is being examined at an original company facility, and at a location that was at that time in the very midst of everyday German life.
The research, documentation and presentation of the history of the Topf & Söhne company received support from German Federal Commissioner for Culture and Media, the Free State of Thuringia, the German Federal Cultural Foundation, the German Foreign Ministry, the Sparkasse Cultural Foundation of Hesse-Thuringia and the Hans Böckler Foundation.
The J. A. Topf & Söhne Company of Erfurt (founded in 1878, and most recently known as EMS – Erfurter Mälzerei- und Speicherbau, until its bankruptcy in 1994) is a glaring example of German industry's complicity in the annihilation of European Jews. Beginning in 1939, Topf & Söhne supplied crematorium ovens to the Dachau, Buchenwald and Mauthausen concentration camps. The ovens supplied by Topf & Söhne made use of the same technology as municipal cremation ovens, albeit abandoning all associated cultural norms and practices. The SS administration ordered the construction of these crematoria in an effort to respond to the high mortality rate among prisoners, the result of starvation, disease, abuse, and outright murder. Later, in 1941, Topf & Söhne went on to become complicit in the crimes of the Holocaust — that is, in the mass industrialized extermination of human life. In collaboration with the SS construction management office in Auschwitz, Kurt Prüfer, chief engineer of the company's crematorium construction department, designed a facility for use in Auschwitz-Birkenau able to handle a peak capacity of 4,416 bodies per day. Technologically, such a facility was an essential prerequisite enabling Auschwitz to become a centre for the annihilation of European Jews after 1943. Topf & Söhne was also responsible for the installation of the ventilation systems in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. During these years, Topf & Söhne engineers and fitters repeatedly visited the camp to carry out and supervise construction activities, during which time they became witnesses to mass murder. Indeed, some fitters remained at the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp for as long as a year.
The project seeks to grasp how it could come about that managers, engineers and workers could place their professional and technical expertise at the disposal of those committing these National Socialist crimes, seemingly without question or reflection. To answer these questions, the history of the Topf & Söhne company is being examined within its local and industrial contexts. At the same time, this scholarly examination and documentation reflects upon the history of memory and forgetting in East and West Germany after the war.
It was not until the 1990s that the actions and complicity of the Topf & Söhne Company came to light. In 1993, British historian Gerald Fleming discovered, in the holdings of the Moscow Central State Archives, records of interrogations conducted by Soviet officers with Topf & Söhne engineers who had been arrested in the Soviet-occupied zone in 1946. In 1989, Jean-Claude Pressac documented the participation of Topf & Söhne in the Holocaust in his study titled Auschwitz: Technique and Operation of the Gas Chambers (New York, 1989; the German translation was later published by Piper Verlag of Munich in 1994).
Since then, an Erfurt endowment association made up of educational institutions and individual supporters has worked to have sections of the now-abandoned industrial site converted for documentation and exhibition purposes. A series of lectures organized by the endowment association is now available (in German) in book form: Firma Topf & Söhne—Hersteller der Öfen für Auschwitz: Ein Fabrikgelände als Erinnerungsort, edited by Aleida Assmann, Frank Hiddemann, Eckhard Schwarzenberger (Frankfurt: Campus, 2002).