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



Brief history of Topf & Sons
1878 – 1963


THE FIRM OF TOPF & SONS, 1878–1963

[The following history is a fairly complete exposé of the documentation collected by the author concerning the now defunct firm of Topf & Sons, originally of Erfurt, later of Wiesbaden. Only the essential documents are presented. The author is at present of the opinion that his research into this firm should be pursued, and if the findings are interesting he will produce an in-depth study, fully documented and illustrated.]

A historical study of the firm of Topf & Sons of Erfurt may appear irrelevant in the context of the homicidal gas chambers of KL Auschwitz-Birkenau, for the production of cremation furnaces was only one of the firm’s areas of activity, and was in no way blameworthy given the tradition in Germany, a country where, unlike in France, the cremation of the dead is normal practice. In these circumstances it is only natural that there should be firms producing the necessary equipment. During the Second World War, the two main suppliers of furnaces for the concentration camps were TOPF & SONS of Erfurt and H KORI of Berlin.

Despite this apparent innocence, Messrs Topf & Sons was the only civilian firm to have been directly and wittingly involved in the extermination of the Jews in Auschwitz, not simply as the supplier of cremation furnaces, but in the fitting out of the gas chambers in Birkenau Krematorien II and III. This complicity, scarcely suspected by anyone after the war, led the elder of the two directors at the time, Ludwig Topf Junior, to commit suicide on 31st May 1945. The arrest by the Russians on 4th March 1946 of four Topf engineers (Gustav BRAUN, production manager; Kurt PRÜFER, head of the “crematorium construction” division; Fritz SANDER, inventor of a continuous cremation furnace; and Karl SCHULTZE [or SCHULZE], probably Prüfer’s deputy) should have led to a detailed examination of the role of Topf in the extermination installations in Birkenau, which would have been entirely possible at the time. The first Camp Commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Hoess, having been arrested by the British on 11th February 1946, testified before the Nuremberg Military Tribunal on 15th April 1946 and was then handed over to the Polish authorities on 25th May 1946. Judged in Warsaw between 11th and 19th March 1947 and condemned to death on 2nd April, he was hanged behind the “Old Krematorium” in the Auschwitz camp on 16th April 1947. Given the speed with which Hoess was brought to justice. there is no reason why the four Topf engineers should not have had similar treatment and appeared before the Warsaw High Court in March 1947. However, this appears not to have been the case and they disappeared without trace. It is likely that their being charged and imprisoned was occasioned by their participation in the construction of cremation furnaces, not in the Auschwitz Krematorien, but in Buchenwald (near Erfurt), where there were two of the three-muffle furnaces designed by Prüfer. This is the most probable origin of their disappearance and presumed execution.

The fact that an enterprise, generally considered to be honorable and respectable, for the Wiesbaden Chamber of Commerce and Industry in December 1947, not knowing of its darker side between 1941 and 1943, deemed it “worthwhile and deserving of a subsidy”, should have got itself involved in the most criminal of all the programs of the Third Reich, calls for a historical study in order to understand the reasons and identify who was, or were, responsible. Contrary to what has been believed up to now, there is a world of difference between Topf’s participation and that of Degesch of Frankfurt am Main, the suppliers of Zyklon-B. Degesch certainly supplied the poison, but the same product was used for BOTH disinfesting the camp and its inmates AND for gassing the Jews. but the managing director, Dr Gerhard PETERS, did not learn of this “abnormal” use of his product until summer 1944. and then only by chance, whereas Prüfer and Schul[t]ze collaborated closely on the criminal conversion of the Birkenau Krematorien, for Prüfer had been designated “technical advisor” for the entire “installation” (the four Krematorien) by the Auschwitz Bauleitung.

The firm was founded by Johann Andreas TOPF (1816–92), whose initials were later used in the name of the enterprise. It would seem that J A Topf had four sons: Gustav, the eldest, two others whose first names are not known. and Ludwig, born in 1863. who was subsequently to be known as Ludwig Topf Senior to distinguish him from his eldest son, Ludwig Topf Junior. Between 1865 and 1875 J A Topf produced heating installations. Being also a master brewer ["Braumeister"], he ran his own brewery from 1875, and although the was regarded as an experimental operation, it was joined by a malting installation, also experimental, and then by a laboratory, which the eldest son. Gustav, managed and developed. In 1878, two more sons entered the firm and what was to be its final name was duly registered J A TOPF & SÖHNE. In 1882, the last son, Ludwig (Senior), then aged 19. entered the family firm in his turn. However, during the 1890s, Johann Andreas and two of his sons died. Dr Gustav Topf had also probably died, leaving Ludwig in sole charge of the firm. Early in the new century his wife, Else, gave him a first son, Ludwig Topf Junior, then in 1902 a daughter Johanna and finally, on 30th November 1904, the second and last son, Ernst-Wolfgang. Ludwig Topf Senior developed the business enormously until his death in 1914 at the age of 51. Ownership then passed to his widow Else Topf. At that time, the firm employed about one thousand people and exported its products to over thirty countries throughout the world.