If the owners of Topf & Sons had been allowed to implement the firm’s vision, Auschwitz-Birkenau would have received the most high-tech crematorium system ever designed: a four-story tall “incineration chamber” to be fueled by heated corpses placed along conveyor belts. Instead of having to rely on the Third Reich’s existing small prisoner-operated “ovens,” the disposal process could finally become self-contained.
The plans drawn up by Topf & Sons for this nightmarish creation were never implemented, but — by the time the family business filed a patent application for it — the company had already helped the Nazis dispose of more than one million corpses at several forced labor and death camps.
For her recently published book, “Architects of Death: The Family Who Engineered the Death Camps,” author Karen Bartlett traces the twisted trajectory of Topf & Sons, one of many German companies that enabled the regime’s “war of annihilation” against Jews and other enemies.
Founded in 1878, Topf & Sons’ initial expertise was in brewing and milling. The unprecedented carnage of World War I, however, opened new possibilities, pushing Topf to become the global leader in designing and constructing crematoria.
During World War II, Topf & Sons made itself indispensable to the Nazis’ “Final Solution,” the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust. The company’s products and know-how were deployed most lethally at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where piles of evidence — corpses — were disposed of in Topf “ovens.” The gas chambers were also ventilated by Topf technology for much of the camp’s existence.
“Auschwitz evolved from a backwater camp for Polish prisoners to a site for Soviet prisoners of war and finally into a vast forced labor complex and the heart of the planned extermination of the Jewish race in Europe,” wrote Bartlett. “And far from being mere ‘camp suppliers,’ it was the innovation and flexibility of Topf & Sons that enabled this transformation,” wrote the London-based journalist.
Bartlett’s book is framed around the elderly Hartmut Topf, great-grandson of the company’s founder. For many years, Topf sought to “separate himself” from his family’s infamous name, including by helping to create a memorial at the former headquarters of Topf & Sons.
As the book’s figure of redemption, Topf recalls a Jewish friend from his childhood named Hans Laessing. The boy and his family “disappeared” during the war, and Topf remained forever haunted. In addition to the atonement-seeking German, the book examines the motivations of Topf & Sons’ leaders during the Nazi era, as well as some of the firm’s SS liaisons.
“The challenge for me was to explore the human motives of the men involved,” Bartlett told The Times of Israel in an interview. “A book that was about the technology of building ovens would be a very grim and strange book — I wanted to make sure we in some way understood what these men were like, and why they behaved as they did.”
‘Prepared to put aside any human morality’
The Nazis’ genocidal program was an irresistible opportunity for brothers Ludwig and Ernst Topf, leaders of their namesake company throughout the 1930s and World War II.
Although fewer than two percent of the firm’s products were used in the killing facilities of Nazi camps, the owners and engineers of Topf & Sons went beyond the call of duty in servicing the SS. Assisting the process were more than 600 forced laborers brought in from the conquered east.
During the first phase of the Auschwitz-Birkenau’s existence, the “stop-gap” in mass murder was the ability of the SS to destroy thousands of corpses on a weekly basis. Initially, fields of mass graves heaved open in the summer heat, pointing to the need for a more technological — and permanent — method for eradicating human remains.
To solve the problem, Topf & Sons installed its “eight-muffle ovens” inside several of the gassing-crematoria complexes. With the new ovens, thousands of corpses could be incinerated daily. In addition to building and maintaining the crematoria, Topf & Sons later created a ventilation system for the gas chambers, allowing the corpses to be cleared out in about one hour, as opposed to several hours.
“In the case of Topf & Sons, it was a handful of individuals — out for what they could get — be that money, safety from serving in the army, or career advancement,” Bartlett told The Times of Israel. “They were opportunists, prepared to put aside any human morality to advance themselves in the smallest of ways,” said Bartlett.
Like the Nazi regime they served, the masters of Topf & Sons became adept at deploying euphemisms, for example replacing the word crematoria with “incineration chambers.” Toward the end of the war, the firm applied for a patent to build a “continuous operation corpse incineration” system. Never constructed, the concept was based on using conveyor belts with heated corpses to maintain the flames.
For abetting the Nazis’ genocide machine, neither Ludwig nor Ernst Topf were prosecuted after the war. Under Soviet rule, the company was confiscated and nationalized. Historians largely blame Soviet authorities for hindering prosecutions of the company and its leaders, including by withholding key evidence.
By 1955, the firm was no longer making “incineration chambers,” but focused on granary construction for farms. The privatization of Topf & Sons in 1993 was followed by bankruptcy and closure in 1996, some half a century after the firm’s heyday as Germany’s leading designer and manufacturer of crematoria.
‘This is happening all the time’
“Architects of Death” closes with the 2011 creation of a Holocaust memorial at the building that served as Topf & Sons’ headquarters, not far from Buchenwald.
Located in central Germany’s Erfurt, the memorial’s façade is marked with the words used by the firm in its correspondence with the SS: “Always happy to be at your service.” Inside the ordinary-looking office building, visitors can learn about Topf & Sons’ dubious accomplishments during the Third Reich.
“We can show here how easy it is for a human being to ignore his responsibility towards his fellow human beings in his daily work,” said memorial director Annegret Schule.
Currently, the memorial is the only of its kind at the site of a German company involved in the Holocaust. Through windows in the former headquarters, Buchenwald can be seen in the distance — a world of horrors where thousands of prisoners’ corpses were destroyed in crematoria provided by Topf & Sons.
“If I go to the memorial in Buchenwald I cannot identify myself with the SS, because I would never have become a member,” Schule says in Bartlett’s book. “But I can relate to other people who harm other people by doing their normal jobs. This is happening all the time. Visitors are motivated to think about this. Processes that are completely normal within any companies have led to atrocities,” said the memorial director.
In her interview with The Times of Israel, Bartlett noted that Topf & Sons was one of many German companies involved in making Nazi atrocities possible.
“There are many companies who [could be researched in the manner of Topf & Sons],” said Bartlett, adding that she relied on German translators in piecing together the book from vast archival holdings.
“For example, Siemens built the electrical infrastructure for the camps, and Bosch installed the plumbing and water,” said Bartlett. “Kori was the other company which built crematoriums for the camps; it still exists but has never made any of its archive available to researchers. I believe that you can see the building where the company existed which made the Zyklon B gas in Hamburg, but there is no memorial there,” said Bartlett.
Asked why she thinks no other Holocaust-complicit German companies have erected memorials, Bartlett pointed out the difference between remotely located former Nazi camps, and major companies still in existence.
“[The camps] can be mentally put aside and forgotten about in some senses,” said Bartlett. “Companies are still in existence, in the hearts of towns and cities, and are therefore much more a part of normal life.”