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Not of Public Interest? The Story of the Topf & Söhne Museum of Erfurt

In the last issue of the Auschwitz Study Group newsletter, I wrote about my visit to the Topf & Söhne museum in Erfurt. During WW2, Topf & Söhne made the incinerators in which hundreds of thousands of murdered Jews were efficiently reduced to ashes. I purposely avoid the term “crematory” because it implies a sense of human dignity and respect. The ovens of Auschwitz indeed were just “waste” incinerators, invented by German engineer Kurt Pruefer and produced by Topf & Söhne in Erfurt.

Today, just one building of the formerly vast industrial complex remains. It has been renovated and now houses the documentary center which tells the story of the place and the role the company played in the complex system which made the Holocaust possible. However the documentary center has its own history which has been neglected. It is my hope that this article will help to rectify this.

The origin of the Topf & Söhne Museum goes back to the year 2000. The former industrial plant lay empty. Its buildings were in a state of decay from years of neglect. The city of Erfurt had decided to demolish the buildings and to accept proposals for new uses of the land.

A group of young people got wind of the plan and decided to do something about it. They feared that the area would become an object of capitalist investment and commercial excess. They were part of a political movement called “Autonome.” This movement exists primarily in some larger German cities, but is found in other countries as well.  It is composed of leftist youth and young adults with radical opinions about politics, the state, and the role of governments in capitalist societies.  In keeping with their radical opinions, these young people took a radical step:  They occupied the entire Topf & Söhne plant. Their plan was to establish a youth and cultural center, which should be run solely by youth without any interference of the city government.

As the occupation continued, the young people began to learn about the dark history of the factory grounds. During this period the subject of the Holocaust in general and the role of the Topf & Söhne factory in particular were simply not talked about.  These were taboo themes in the city of Erfurt.  Many people did not even know of the existence of the company and its product because discussion of the topic had effectively been suppressed for decades. The current mayor of the town wanted to continue this practice.

Auschwitz I Crematorium
Crematorium in Auschwitz I

Nevertheless, the youth started cooperating with some independent historians as well as with academics of the nearby university. They also started a partnership with the local organization “Topf und Söhne,” which had unsuccessfully tried to establish a commemorative site on the factory grounds. Together they began to offer guided tours through the area which were mainly designed to educate school classes and youth groups. Surprisingly, that offer was also made to and accepted by the general population of Erfurt which came in large numbers to learn about the history of the place.  Thus, the occupiers achieved at least one of their main objectives: They initiated a discussion about the abandoned area and prevented its history from falling into oblivion.

Meanwhile, there was much political pressure on the city administration.   Public interest, which extended internationally, was so high, that the town mayor did not dare to clear the area. 

This created a balance of power: As long as the youth did not cause too much trouble their actions were tolerated.  A “positive” side effect for the city was also that it   would not be forced to deal with the city’s Nazi past at an official level.  That would be done on a smaller scale by the occupiers.  This enabled the mayor of the town to devote himself to “more important” business. 

In 2009, there was a change in the policy regarding the Topf & Söhne compound. I do not know exactly what made the decision makers change their stance regarding the situation, but the young people were suddenly evicted and the occupation, which had lasted for more than eight years, was put to an end. Fortunately, the discussions which the occupation had brought about and the revitalization of the collective memory could not be erased. Though virtually the whole complex was flattened by bulldozers, one building was left standing. This building was renovated to serve as a documentary center and museum which chronicles the story of one of history’s most shameful business relationships.

The museum contains documents, contracts and other artifacts which clearly prove what was invented, produced and passionately perfected in the factory: A major technical innovation which played a key role in carrying out the murder of Jews in Auschwitz.  This was the construction of a furnace that enabled the industrialized destruction of some 1.1 million people in the gas chambers of the Auschwitz.

Official sources do not speak about the struggle which led to the creation of the Topf & Söhne Museum. Even on the museum’s website, there is just a “hidden link” which gives information about the role the youth played as the actual initiators of its establishment. We still do not know much about the internal fights within the city government: There must have been some major arguments between the supporters of the museum and their opponents.

Nevertheless, I think this part of the story should also be told. No matter what one thinks of “Autonome” and their radical positions, it was through their tenacious refusal to ignore the past which led to the establishment of the museum, and the preservation of this important part of history. I also would like to stress the fact that it is often the young people in our society who stick their fingers in the wounds of suppressed memories and force us to deal with the past.  Sometimes this is the only way we can come to terms with it. 

 

Michael Graber

Source: Film Topfgang + Seminar in Erfurt vom 10. bis 12. Oktober 2015

I would like to thank my colleague Sylvia Holhut of the Youth Council of Munich (KJR Muenchen-Stadt), who gave me all the background information needed to write this article.