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Topf & Söhne Museum: Visiting the Sorcerer’s Apprentices of Mass Murder

Auschwitz Study Group member, Michael Graber, took part in a seminar of the German Janusz Korczak Association in Erfurt. During this event, the group visited the building of “Topf & Soehne”. The company does not exist anymore, only one of the administrative buildings has remained and is now a museum and a commemorial site.

 J.A. Topf und Söhne was a German engineering company, which designed and built the incineration furnaces (crematoria) used by the Nazis at concentration and extermination camps during the Holocaust; including Auschwitz-Birkenau, Buchenwald, Belzec, 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.

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. 

Topf Museum
Topf Museum in Erfurt, Germany

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, Dachau, Mauthausen, Gusen Concentration Camps, and larger industrial incinerators especially designed for Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

Michael Graber kindly spoke to us about his visit to the museum, the education available on the subject and his reflections for the future.

After the German reunification, Erfurt - once a depressing place in the typical grayish hue of all neglected cities in the then ‘Actually Existing Socialism’ – became a gem of urban development again. 

Some hundred million Euros had been poured into renovating the beautiful timberframe houses in the downtown area, as well as the reconstruction of the gaps that had been left after the bombing of Erfurt during WW2. 

But there is something more to tell about the city. There is that former commercial property which gives witness to one of the biggest crimes in the history of mankind. It is the Topf & Soehne museum and memorial, where the crematories of the extermination camp of Auschwitz had been developed, produced and been sent to its ship-to location.

I visited the place in December 2013, when I took part in a seminar of the German Janusz Korczak Association. Dealing with Korczak almost necessarily brings up the matter of the Shoah. So we decided to book a guided tour through the museum, and to learn about the history of the place.

Today there is just a single building left, standing in the middle of a vast area that in the past comprised the industrial complex of the Topf factory. On the front of building there’s  a writing: „Stets gern für Sie beschäftigt (“Always happy to help …”) which gives insight into the mind of one the company’s hardest-working employees: Kurt Pruefer, the constructor of the Auschwitz crematories. This quote was taken from a business letter which was sent to the SS administration of Auschwitz. 

It clearly proves the company’s attitude: They liked what they did. And so did Kurt Pruefer, who was a gifted engineer. Pruefer conceived a highly effective technical device for the disposal of human bodies. We should not call the result of his efforts a crematory in the classical meaning: He simply constructed a combustion furnace; technically spoken: a waste incinerating plant. He did this without any ethical objections nor qualms. 

A German Homo Faber – a brilliant and motivated employee, who did way more than just his job.  Pruefer delivered many ideas for the improvement of “his industrial plant”, he was identified with his work, trying to keep it running in the most effective way.

Standing in front of all these displays in the Topf & Soehne museum makes one speechless. You can read the original documents which prove the execution of a pretty good deal. You can read bare figures, which give witness to one the most disgusting transactions in the history of mankind. Topf & Soehne made some good money with combusting murdered Jews!

All this happened to be in this sober, rectangular building in Erfurt/Germany. Considering that Kurt Pruefer was just an “ordinary man” in the sense of Christopher Browning, who makes the case, that actually every individual may become a murderer (it just takes a “fitting” context and environment), makes one look very distrustful  on oneself. 

The conclusion I drew after visiting Topf & Soehne: Accept the past, as it was (which is extremely painful), and learn about the Shoah – because the biggest sin is to not be interested in it. Take responsibility for the presence and the future. Stand up for democracy, freedom, and the peaceful coexistence of the nations.


Michael Graber