Topf and Sons

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J.A. Topf und Söhne
J.A. Topf and Sons
ASchreiben Prüfer an Topf EinäscherungsofenAuschwitz.jpg
Original letter from Topf & Sons to Heinrich Himmler dated 8 September 1942, about the required furnaces and their capacity.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald, Bełżec, Dachau, Mauthausen and Gusen

J.A. Topf and Sons (German: J.A. Topf und Söhne) was a German engineering company, which was one of the companies that designed and built the incineration furnaces (crematoria) used by the Germans at concentration and extermination camps during the Holocaust; including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald, Bełżec, Dachau, Mauthausen and Gusen. In total, Topf built 66 coal-fired muffle furnaces for cremation at various camps; of which 46 operated at Auschwitz alone.[1]

The site of the former factory is now a holocaust memorial site and a museum.

Early history[edit]

Topf & Sons was founded in 1878, in Erfurt, as a customized incinerator and malting equipment manufacturer. Erfurt is approximately 30 km from 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 retorts which complied with the strict government regulations set forth in 1934 on preserving the dignity of the body. Naked flame could not come in contact with the coffin, and cremation was to be smoke and odor free.

Holocaust involvement[edit]

In 1939, following a massive outbreak of typhus in Buchenwald, Topf and Sons were contacted by Nazi party officials seeking an answer for dealing with the large numbers of dead left in the wake of this outbreak. Topf & Sons placed a mobile incineration oven at the camp’s disposal. The device was comparable to an oven type used in agriculture for the incineration of animal carcasses and already in the company’s product range. This mobile incinerator was later replaced with a permanent construction, which was both larger, and more efficient; being able to handle twice the previous incinerator's load. After 1939, and the demonstration or "proof of concept" that the firm could design an incinerator which would handle large numbers of corpses, Nazi officials further contracted Topf and Sons to provide similar incineration furnaces for the Bełżec, Dachau, Mauthausen and Gusen concentration camps, and larger industrial incinerators especially designed for Auschwitz concentration camp.

Selected camp locations
Crematorium in operation at Dachau. May 1945 re-enactment by Sonderkommando for historical record
Buchenwald's crematorium
Mauthausen Crematorium

The firm knew what their incinerators were being used for, following numerous visits to Auschwitz and Dachau. In fact, Kurt Prüfer, the original designer of the ovens stated during his interrogation by Russian officials: "I have known since spring 1943 that innocent human beings were being liquidated in Auschwitz gas chambers and that their corpses were subsequently incinerated..."[1] Furthermore, he goes on to note that he himself visited Auschwitz no fewer than five times, during the construction and operation of the incinerators, saying when asked: "Five times. The first time [was] the beginning of 1943, to receive the orders of the SS Command, where the incinerators were to be built. The second time [was] in spring 1943 to inspect the building site. The third time was in autumn 1943 to inspect a fault in the construction of a chimney. The fourth time [was] at the beginning of 1944, to inspect the repaired chimney. The fifth time [was] September–October 1944 when I visited Auschwitz in connection with the intended relocation [from] Auschwitz' of the retorts, since the battle front was getting nearer. They were not relocated because there were not enough workers..."[1]

A sketch from the Vrba–Wetzler report, showing the rough layout of the crematoria used at Auschwitz, one of the several Nazi German extermination camps in occupied Poland
Model of Auschwitz I showing gas chamber at bottom and crematoria above

End World War II and afterwards[edit]

Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps were liberated by the Red Army on the 26 and 27 January 1945.[2] To try to conceal what had been going on, the SS destroyed the crematoria and gas chambers before the Soviet troops arrived. However, in an adminstration office at Birkenau camp, the Soviets found documentation relating to Topf & Söhne, detailing "the construction of the technology of mass death, complete with the precise costs of crematoria and calculations of the number of corpses each could incinerate in a day".[3][4]

In April 1945, Erfurt and Buchenwald were liberated by the US Army. It had already been agreed in the Yalta Conference, held in February 1945, that the area would come under Soviet control after the Germans had been defeated. It was handed over on 3 July 1945. In 1949 the Soviet Occupied Zone became the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).[5]

At Buchenwald, liberated on 11 April, the crematoria ovens remained intact. The Americans filmed the camp, including the crematoria, with the camera pointedly focusing on the J.A. Topf & Söhne logo and manufacturer's name plate attached to the ovens. The film and still photographs of the camp were shown around the world. Film from Buchenwald and other concentration camps was used as evidence at the Nuremburg Trials.[6][7]

The US Army's Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) started to investigate Topf & Söhne within a few days of the Buchenwald liberation, and took company documents.[8]

Ludwig Topf[edit]

Ludwig Topf (1903-1945) was head of the company's technical operations. On 27 April 1945 he organised a meeting with company's works council at which it was agreed that the line to be taken with investigators was that workers and management knew that the ovens were delivered to concentration camps, but say that they did not know what was going there. Topf committed suicide on 31 May 1945, by cynanide poisoning. A senior engineer of the company, Kurt Prüfer, had been arrested the day before, and Topf had been warned that he was about to be arrested himself.[9] He left a suicide note claiming that he and his brother were innocent and that he was the 'opposite' of a Nazi, but he thought he would be used as a scapegoat anyway.[8] He was unmarried and had no children. He had a reputation as a womaniser and was living with his secretary, 19 years his junior, at the time of his death.[6]

Ernst Wolfgang Topf[edit]

Ernst Wolfgang Topf (1904-1979) was head of the company's business operations. At the end of June 1945, he travelled to an insurance company in Stuttgart, then in the French occupied zone, to collect a 300,000 Reichmark life insurance payout that was due following his brother Ludwig's death. Erfurt was handed over to the Soviet administration on 3 July, and Soviets would not give Topf permission to return. From October 1945 he went to live in the town of Gudensberg, in the district Fritzlar-Homberg, in the American zone, where his niece, the daughter of his sister Hanna, was working for the American military administration.[8]

In 1951 Topf founded a new company, in Wiesbaden, to make crematoria and refuse incinerators. He used the old family firm's name, J.A. Topf & Söhne, hoping to capitalise on its good reputation prior to World War II. However, his business never did well. After the truth about the concentration camps was exposed, Topf & Söhne's involvement was quite widely known. Topf moved the company to Mainz in 1954. There was further bad publicity when the book Macht ohne Moral ('Power without Morals') was published in 1957.[10] Its author was the journalist Raimund Schnabel, who had himself been a prisoner in Dachau because of his resistance against the Nazi T-4 "euthanasia" programme. The book contains photographs of piles of bodies and crematoria at various concentration camps. It also includes transcripts of two documents from the original Topf company, making its collobration with the SS clear. The company went bankrupt in May 1963. Topf's wife Erika, aged 52, died in April 1963. They had two children.[9][8]

Investigations into Ernst Topf[edit]

Topf was arrested by the American CIC on 25 March 1946. He was kept in prison and interrogated for two or three weeks and then let go. He maintained that the ovens they had delivered to the concentration camps were standard equipment, of the same type that they made for city crematora for civilian use and claimed that if they had refused to work with the SS they would have been severely punished.[8]

Later, in December 1946, because of his membership of the Nazi party, the Fritzlar-Homberg Spruchskammer, a German civilian denazification court, started investigating Ernst Topf. About 8.5 million Germans had been members of the party and the Spruchskammer were set up to investigate them. Topf was required to provide two sworn witness statements regarding his non-Nazi political leanings - two employees of Topf & Söhne provided these and vouched for him. The Spruchskammer had difficulties in getting evidence, partly due to a lack of co-operation between American officials and officials in Soviet occupied Erfurt.[8]

In March 1948 the Spruchskammer in Wiesbaden, where Topf had moved to, took over his files. This closed at the end of 1949 and Topf's file was handed over to the Wiesbaden state prosecutors office, where investigations into him as an accessory to murder for his role in the Holocaust began. However, important witness statements were lost and Soviet authorities in Erfurt were no longer interested in assisting with the case. The investigation was suspended in 1951.[9][8]

In 1959 the state prosecutors in Frankfurt reopened investigations into Topf. Two further legal proceedings followed in 1962 but neither resulted in a formal charge. Ernst Topf died in 1979. He never made any apology for Topf & Söhne's involvement with the Nazi regime.[8]


Kurt Prüfer (1891-1952), a senior engineer and the main designer of the ovens, was initially arrested by the American CIC on 30 May 1945 and interrogated. He was released three weeks later and returned to work.

On 1 March 1946 the firm was given a large contract for malting and brewing equipment by the reparations department of the Soviet miltary, however a few days later, four engineers of the firm were arrested. These were Karl Prüfer, Fritz Sander (1876-1946), Karl Schultze (1900-died after 1955) and Gustav Braun (1889-1958). Braun, also a qualified engineer, was the factory's production manager.[8][11]

Fritz Sander, Prüfer's manager, who was 70, died of heart failure on 26 March 1946 in Berlin, three weeks after his arrest and after four interogration sessions.[8][12]. He is quoted as saying during the interrogations "I was a German engineer and key member of the Topf works and I saw it as my duty to apply my specialist knowledge in this way in order to help Germany win the war, just as an aircraft construction engineer builds airplanes in wartime, which are also connected with the destruction of human beings."[11]

Over the next two years, the other three men remained in custody and were interrograted in Germany and in Moscow, where ,on 17 April 1948, they were sentenced to 25 years in a Russian labour camp. That was the highest sentence that could be given without having a full trial. Prüfer died in October 1952 of a stroke while in prison. In 1955 Schultze and Braun were released early.[13]

Nationalisation of company[edit]

As Ernst Topf was now in western Germany and his brother Ludwig was dead, Topf & Söhne was declared an "ownerless company" and in 1946 it was taken over by the state and renamed Topfwerke Erfurt VEB. It was made a subsidiary of VVB NAGEMA, a group of East German state-owned engineering companies. Under state control it no longer made crematoria. In 1957 it stopped production of all forms of combustion machinery and was renamed VEB Erfurter Mälzerei- und Speicherbau, (Erfurt Oasthouse and Granary Construction). It was privatised in 1993 after German reunification and it went bankrupt in 1996.[9]

After German Reunification[edit]

Property claim[edit]

After German reunification in 1990, over 2.5 million claims were made for restitution of property that had been confiscated during the Nazi period, or by the East German government.[14] Some descendants of the Topf family made a claim for the former family villa and factory in Erfurt which had been made state property. It was refused in 1992, because property confiscated during the Soviet occupation period could not be claimed. However, the family made a further claim for financial compensation. In 1994 Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, the German Justice Minister, also refused that claim because, she said, the factory was used to manufacture the “murder machinery of the extermination camp.”[15]

Hartmut Topf (born 1934), a great-grandson of the founder of the firm Johann Andreas Topf, but not from the branch of the family that managed the company during the Nazi period, publicly criticised the attempt to claim back the property, saying that they shouldn't profit from holocaust crimes. He was later involved with researching the history of the firm and in setting up the memorial site and museum.[16][17]

Site Occupation[edit]

Squatters moved onto part of the site of the former factory on 12 April 2001 and set up an independent culture centre known as Das Besetzte Haus (the occupied house). They ran social and cultural projects, and organised events and guided tours which drew attention to the history of Topf & Söhne during the Nazi period, which had been largely forgotten. The occupation was one of the most well known actions of left-radicals of that period in Germany. A book about the occupation was published in 2012, titled Topf & Söhne - Besetzung auf einem Täterort (Topf & Söhne - Occupation of a crime scene).[18] About 30 remaining squatters were evicted by the police on 16 April 2009.[9]

Museum and Memorial site[edit]

Memorial site Topf & Söhne, Erfurt

After falling into decay for many years, the former Topf & Söhne site was given historic monument protection status by the State of Thüringen in 2003.

The factory workshops no longer remain, but a museum and education centre opened in the former administration building on 27 January 2011, Holocaust Memorial Day. [19] The museum documents the history of Topf & Söhne and its collaboration with the Nazi regime using material from the company's archives. It also has changing exhibitions on Holocaust related topics.[9]

Further reading[edit]

  • Knigge, Volkhard, et al. (2005) Engineers of the "final solution": Topf & Sons, builders of the Auschwitz ovens. Book accompanying an exhibition. [Weimar]: Stiftung Gedenkstätten Buchenwald und Mittelbau-Dora. (English translation of the original German book). ISBN 3-935598-10-6

In German

  • Assmann, Aleida; Hidderman, Frank (2002) Firma Topf & Söhne - Hersteller der Öfen für Auschwitz: Ein Fabrikgelände als Erinnerungsort? Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag. ISBN 3-593-37035-2
  • Meyerbeer, Karl; Späth, Pascal (eds) (2012) Topf & Söhne - Besetzung auf einem Täterort. Heidelberg: Graswurzel-Verlag. ISBN 978-3939045205
  • Pressac, Jean Claude (1994) Die Krematorien von Auschwitz. Die Technik des Massenmordes. Munich: Piper Verlag. ISBN 978-3492121934
  • Saupe, Bianca (2010) Die Firma Topf und Söhne. Munich: GRIN Publishing. ISBN 978-3640694952
  • Schüle, Annegret (2017) J.A Topf & Söhne: ein Erfurter Familieunternehmen und der Holocaust. Erfurt: Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Thüringen. ISBN 978-3-943588-99-6
  • Schüle, Annegret; Sowade, Tobias (2015) Willy Wiemokli: Buchhalter bei J. A. Topf & Söhne - zwischen Verfolgung und Mitwisserschaft. Berlin: Hentrich & Hentrich. ISBN 978-3-955651008


The Big Denial documentary[edit]

In 2007 the Dutch broadcaster VPRO made a television documentary about Topf & Söhne called The Big Denial as part of the In Europe series. It includes archival footage from the 1930s and 40s, and footage of the ruins of the Topf family villa in 2007 and the Erfurt factory site and administration building before it was restored as a memorial site. It is available on YouTube, non-professionally cut into three parts. In Dutch and German, with English subtitles.

Site Occupation[edit]

On 16 April 2009 about 30 remaining squatters who occupied part of the Topf & Söhne site from 2001 to 2009 were evicted by the police. The occupation was known throughout Germany simply as "Das Besetzte Haus" (the occupied house).[18] A short video of part of the eviction is available on YouTube. The University of Erfurt's television channel, UNIcut,[20] made a short report about the occupation shortly before the eviction, which is also available on YouTube.


  1. ^ a b c "Nuremberg Remembered". Archived from the original on 2011-07-26. 
  2. ^ Steinbacher, Sybille (2005). Auschwitz: A History. Munich: Verlag C. H. Beck
  3. ^ The Holocaust Chronicle (2009)The technology of death.Retrieved 22 July 2017
  4. ^ Lachendro, Jacek (2017) 27 January 1945. Evacuation and Liberation of the Auschwitz camp. Research Centre, Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum. Retrieved 13 July 2017
  5. ^ Erinnerungsort Topf & Söhne, 12 July 2017
  6. ^ a b The Big Denial. In Europa television series. VPRO, 2007
  7. ^ Concentration camps shown as film evidence during the Nuremberg Trials. United States Holocause Memorial Museum. Retrieved 12 July 2017
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Schüle, Annegret (2017) J.A Topf & Söhne: ein Erfurter Familieunternehmen und der Holocaust. Erfurt: Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Thüringen
  9. ^ a b c d e f Topf and Sons memorial site. The site and its history. Retrieved 7 July 2017
  10. ^ Schnable, Raimund (1957) Macht ohne Moral. Eine Dokumentation über die SS. Frankfurt-am-Main: Röderberg-Verlag
  11. ^ a b The Technology of Murder on Retrieved 22 July 2017.
  12. ^ Kellerhoff, Sven (24.01.2011) Die Ingenieure des Todes kamen aus Erfurt in Welt N24. Retrieved 22 July 2017.
  13. ^ Stiftung Gedenkstätten Buchenwald und Mittelbau-Dora (2005)The engineers of the "final solution". Topf & Sons - Builders of the Auschswitz Ovens . Retrieved 22 July 2017.
  14. ^ Blacksell, M. (1996) Settlement of property claims in former East Germany. New York: Geographical Review, vol.2, 1986 (Apr 1996) p. 198-215.
  15. ^ German Minister Says Heirs of Crematorium Maker Won’t Be Compensated in JTA, 6 December 1994. Retrieved 21 July 2017.
  16. ^ Assmann, Aleida; Hidderman, Frank (2002) Firma Topf & Söhne - Hersteller der Öfen für Auschwitz: Ein Fabrikgelände als Erinnerungsort? Frankfurt/New York: Campus Verlag. ISBN 3-593-37035-2
  17. ^ Gromes, Dörthe (20 January 2011) Ingenieure des Mordens in Die Zeit. Retrieved 7 July 2017
  18. ^ a b Meyerbeer, Karl; Späth, Pascal (eds) (2012) Topf & Söhne - Besetzung auf einem Täterort. Heidelberg: Graswurzel-Verlag
  19. ^ Holocaust Memorial Day: memorial at site of Auschwitz oven builders, in The Telgraph, 27 January 2011. Retrieved 22 July 2017.
  20. ^ Bähr, Christiane (2009) Hochschulfernsehen "UNIcut" feiert Jubiläum

See also[edit]

External links[edit]