The Holocaust Historiography Project
Auschwitz, by J.-C. Pressac

However, the problems with the Auschwitz SS did not stop Prüfer celebrating his 25 years of good and faithful service with Messrs Topf on 6th December 1943 [Document 2]. At this time the firm had 838 employees, of whom 181 were foreign workers and 160 were prisoners of war of various nationalities. Under the Vichy France compulsory labour scheme, a number of French draughtsmen, (classified as design draughtsmen) had been sent to Topf and worked on tracings in Herr Schmidt’s grain silo division. They seem to have been totally unaware that Topf had any dealings with KL Auschwitz. [In 1985, the present author, having found several personal files of these draughtsmen, chose three who had arrived at Topf at the beginning of 1943, and was able to find two of them still alive in France. The first did not even know that the firm produced cremation furnaces and had never heard anything at all about the gassings at Auschwitz. The second had seen a little brochure showing a modest crematorium to be installed near a cemetery, but he too had no idea of any connection between Topf and Auschwitz]. It is likely that the figure of 838 employees given in the Topf balance sheet as at 31st December 1943 did not include the engineers and managerial staff, but this still implies a significant drop since 1939, when there were 1200 employees. The decline is no doubt explained by the directives to German industry to concentrate on arms production, a sector in which Messrs Topf, with their boilers, furnaces and grain silos, were not active.

As from the end of 1943, the sale of big furnaces, like the three and eight-muffle models, came to a halt and not one was built in 1944. It is possible that the breakdowns of Birkenau Krematorien IV and V, duly reported to the SS-WVHA in Berlin, had persuaded those responsible for concentration camps not to order any more furnaces from Topf. But in addition, the structure of such camps was changing under the pressure of the disastrous course of events on the Southern and Eastern Fronts. The enormous waste of human life was slowed and prisoners fit to work were used as slave labour in the desperate war effort. Camps were split up in order to have the labour closer to where it was needed At Auschwitz, the Monowitz camp, created at the request of IG Farbenindustrie, took over from the “error” of Birkenau and then gave rise to a swarm of subcamps ["Nebenlager"] all over Upper Silesia. The same phenomenon was to be seen in the other big camps. Despite a certain “good intention” on the part of the SS to improve, or rather allow others to improve, the lot of the prisoners, who were increasingly in contact with civilians in their places of work, “bad habits” remained. This, together with the fact that the situation of the country was deteriorating day by day, meant that the life of the average deportee scarcely changed, or even became worse, since he was obliged to work hard on extremely low rations and was at the same time illtreated outside the factory, often by their own cadres (such as Kapos. Vorarbeiter, Block leaders, etc., who were generally incompetent, thieving and depraved). The still very high death rate meant that the cremation furnaces had to follow the prisoners to their subcamps. Small, single-muffle units were installed, not so much as a function of the number of prisoners, but according to availability and opportunities. Virtually all these late installations were Kori “Pocket furnaces”. Topf was forced out of this twilight market, and insult was added to injury when the small crematorium buildings that had been erected in two Auschwitz III [Monowitz] subcamps, Blechhammer and Trzebinia, were fitted with the “mobile” furnaces of Topf’s direct competitor, Kori.

On 8th May 1945, the Third Reich capitulated. Erfurt had been occupied by American troops on 10th April (General Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army). The liberation of Buchenwald concentration camp and the discovery of its two three-muffle cremation furnaces for human bones could but inspire the victors to take an interest in the activities of the firm who had produced them: Topf, whose name proudly appeared on a plate on the furnaces. Prüfer was arrested on 30th May [Document 8]. ON THE VERY NEXT DAY, THE MANAGING DIRECTOR, LUDWIG TOPF, COMMITTED SUICIDE [the date of his death being recorded on page 3/4 of the Topf balance sheet as at 31st December 1945, drawn up by Dr Zerban-Jähnert between June and August 1946). This suicide would be incomprehensible if Ludwig Topf had remained simply another furnace manufacturer. His act is a posthumous formal admission that his firm had participated in the extermination of the Jews at Auschwitz, all the more so because members of the firm subsequently blamed his death on a “general nervous depression.” It is ironic that the suicide was somewhat premature because Prüfer was released by the Americans on 13th June. After his brother’s death, either during or just after Prüfer’s short imprisonment, the second director, Ernst-Wolfgang Topf, fled the area, justifying his departure by saying that he had to attend to the formalities connected with the succession. Gustav Braun was deputized as general manager.

Prüfer owed his quick release to his gift of the gab. Being used to dealing with the military, and with the SS in particular, Patton’s soldiers could not intimidate him, and he got the better of them as he had done with the head of the Auschwitz Bauleitung. Bischoff, at the end of 1941. What made it all the more entertaining for Prüfer was that this was new ground for him and his interrogators were green and credulous. All they had against him was that he built cremation furnaces in the camps. He had to show them that his furnaces were simply there for health reasons, essential instruments for the proper functioning of the camp in that they helped avoid the spread of epidemics and they were certainly useful in the present deplorable state of Germany. As they did not suspect Prüfer’s role in the conversion of the Birkenau Krematorien for homicidal purposes, it appears that the Americans did not seize the Topf records, which were at that time full of damning evidence concerning the “deal of a lifetime”. Since his involvement with Auschwitz was not known, Prüfer’s arguments carried the day and he soon found himself not only free, but with an order for a furnace for the town of Erfurt from the occupying power who had imprisoned him!

On 14th June 1945, back in the Topf offices. Prüfer destroyed all traces of the contracts concluded and the correspondence with KL Auschwitz. He purged his own file, leaving only what could be of use to him in the future, such as the letters proving that he was the inventor of the 3 and 8-muffle furnaces. Having covered himself, he got back to work.

The Americans left Erfurt in July 1945 and were replaced by the Soviets. Prüfer did business with the new occupying forces, who ordered two refuse incinerators ["Abfallvernichtungsofern"] from him, one for the Blumenthal barracks in Erfurt though it is possible that this was in fact ordered by the Americans) and the other for the town of Arnstadt. Despite Ludwig’s regrettable act, fears began to subside at Topf. In the afternoon of 11th October, a Soviet soldier appeared at Topf and asked for the manager [Braun’s Aktennotiz of 11/10/45). Received by Braun, he then asked for Prüfer, who was absent, having gone to Arnstadt to supervise the construction of the refuse incinerator, ordered by the Soviets themselves. The soldier then asked Braun a lot of questions about the furnaces and about Prüfer and his position in the firm. Braun replied that Prüfer, being head of the “crematorium construction” division, was concerned solely with incineration furnaces. The soldier knew that Ludwig Topf was dead, as asked about the circumstances. Braun was hardly going to admit that his boss, perfectly aware of Prüfer’s secondary activities in helping prepare for gassings had feared the worst and committed suicide as soon as Prüfer was arrested, so he spoke about Ludwig’s being very down, mental troubles having followed a nervous condition that had appeared almost a year earlier and had subsequently deteriorated. The Russian then asked about the other Topf, Ernst-Wolfgang. He was not there either, having gone to Stuttgart and Frankfurt to settle the assurance business connected with the succession. The Soviet Military Government had given permission. He should have been back already, but the formalities were taking longer than expected. The Russian asked about the firm’s other products, and whether lifts were built in some of the installations. Braun replied affirmatively on this point, and added that Topf activities were also connected with the food industry and brewing. Finally, the soldier said he would be back at 8 o'clock the next morning to talk to Prüfer. He did not say about what.

It is not known whether the Russian soldier did return, and if so how Prüfer got rid of him, but he remained free. As for ErnstWolfgang Topf, probably warned by Braun about this disturbing visit, he never returned to the Soviet Zone, preferring to remain in the West and live with his sister Johanna in Wiesbaden. The fact that Prüfer did not leave with his family during the night of 11th October or during the next few days to join Ernst-Wolfgang Topf shows how sure he must have been of his impunity, having successfully “resisted” the Americans and then purged all incriminating Topf documents.

However, the sword hanging over the heads of the senior Topf men finally fell, and on 4th March 1946 Gustav Braun, Kurt Prüfer [Document 9], Fritz Sander and Karl Schul[t]ze were arrested and imprisoned. For the historian, the trace ends there for the moment. Furthermore, under Soviet Military Government Order No. 124/126, the Topf firm was sequestered while awaiting a legal decision on its degree of culpability in the concentration camps. An interim administrator, Herr Wiemokli, also a member of the firm, was nominated to replace Braun. The wives of the four engineers received payments from Topf for a period of two years, which would imply that their husbands were still in prison AND alive. But, in 1947. the firm became the “property of the Land” ["landeseigener Betrieb"], then on 1st July 1948, it was declared “property of the people” ["volkseigener Betrieb"]. Times were changing quickly. Topf lost its independence and was attached to NAGEMA of Dresden, and its name “Topf & Sons” smacking too much of the patriarchy, was replaced by “Erfurter Maschinenfabrik Nagema.” The announcement of this nationalization allowed ErnstWolfgang Topf to rehabilitate himself. Admittedly, in financial terms he had lost almost everything, but morally he would have regained his lost respectability. After making contact with the members of the Wiesbaden Chamber of Commerce and Industry on 9th December 1947, and after putting out feelers, he was ready to start up in business again. The plan was to transfer his design office to 39 Kapellenstrasse, Wiesbaden, and to subcontract the manufacture of the Topf machines. The technical documentation that he was able to produce convinced the Chamber of Commerce that his project was “worthwhile and deserving of a subsidy.” When the old firm was nationalised [declared “Volkseigenturm"], the transfer could be made. The fact that Germany was divided into two Zones made it possible for Ernst Wolfgang Topf to transform the legal sequestration of his firm into “unjust expropriation” by a communist regime. If he had had to produce written proof, his deception of the authorities would have been revealed, but he forestalled this by claiming that he had had no advance notice of this “despoilment” [and for good reason!], arguing that there were about fifty other Dresden firms in the same position. Thus he was able to hide the fact that his firm had been sequestered and change his own status from that of one suspected of having been involved in crimes against humanity into that of a victim of the “Reds.” His efforts to whitewash the name of Topf had succeeded.

Before the war, Topf had sales branches in Berlin, Dresden, Stuttgart, Ulm and Munich. As of June 1948, those of Berlin and Dresden were out of reach because of the partition of the country, and had most probably been destroyed anyway. The ones that remained, Stuttgart, Ulm and Munich, were all in the south of Germany. Topf intended to start up a production plant in one of these towns. The implantation of the “new” Topf firm was adapted to the geography of the future Federal Republic of Germany. In the centre was the registered office in Wiesbaden. In order to cover North Germany, the “heating and furnaces” division was established at Recklinghausen in the Ruhr, with a design office staffed by 3 to 5 people and the possibility of adding a fabrication shop. In the South there was to be a production unit for malting and grain processing installations. It is not known whether this ingenious programme was implemented in full, but it was certainly partly implemented in the centre and north. When it was registered with the Wiesbaden Court of First Instance on 16th August 1951 under the number A 4995, the situation of the firm was as follows: the registered office (management, general administration and sales) was now at 50 Wilhelmstrasse, an avenue with greenery, much classier than Kapellenstraite; a temporary factory was planned for Wiesbaden before final implantation in South Germany; in Recklinghausen, the design office was functioning in liaison with an establishment specialized in the fabrication of heating equipment and furnaces (nothing is known about the size or number of employees in this unit). The Recklinghausen design office corresponded to Prüfer’s old “Krematoriumabteilung,” and on 31st October 1951 one of its engineers, Martin Klettner, filed a patent application for a single-muffle cremation furnace, entitled “Procedure and equipment for the cremation of corpses, carcasses and parts thereof.” The patent was issued on 13th November 1952 [Documents 10, 11 and 12]. Prüfer’s influence was still to be seen, even if only in the readoption of his “guillotine” system of closure for the muffle doors, as on the 1941 drawing D58,173 and as installed on his 8-muffle furnaces. The unhealthy reddish glow of this patent, recalling only too well the demential rows of furnaces in the Birkenau Krematorien, was the final burst of intellectual effort from the firm of Topf, which was never to attract any further attention thereafter.

After its transfer to the West, the new Topf was never more than a very pale shadow of the old. It is not known to what extent the younger Topf was able to persuade his former engineers to come to Wiesbaden, and if so how they managed to cross the frontier, but it is unlikely that many joined him. It seems much more probable that Ernst-Wolfgang restarted the Topf business virtually on his own and with very limited resources. The initial registered capital for the new company in 1951 was 1,500 DM, which was three or four times the average monthly wage at that date. He was relying above all on a wealth of technical