Grue­some busi­ness

The lurid tale of a Ger­man beer com­pany that helped the Nazis build cre­ma­to­ria

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • NEVILLE TELLER

The city of Er­furt in the fed­eral state of Thuringia in cen­tral Ger­many has a unique claim to fame. It con­tains the only Holo­caust me­mo­rial housed on the site of an in­dus­trial man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany. The story be­hind that me­mo­rial is the sub­ject of Karen Bartlett’s new book Ar­chi­tects of Death.

The com­pany con­cerned was J.A. Topf and Sons, a firm founded in the late 19th cen­tury to en­gage in the brew­ing of beer, based on Jo­hannes An­dreas Topf’s patented fir­ing sys­tem for heat­ing malt, hops and wa­ter. In her metic­u­lously re­searched ac­count, Bartlett traces, step by step, how this typ­i­cal small-time Ger­man firm was trans­formed into a ma­jor sup­plier to the SS of the cre­ma­to­ria and gas cham­bers used in the Nazi death camps to ex­ter­mi­nate mil­lions of hu­man be­ings.

Bartlett shows beyond any shadow of doubt that the broth­ers who headed the firm dur­ing the Nazi era, as well as the en­gi­neers, of­fi­cials and other em­ploy­ees en­gaged in this as­pect of their busi­ness, were fully aware of the pur­pose for which their cre­ma­to­ria were in­tended. The com­pany made no ef­fort to hide its in­volve­ment − in­deed it stamped its Topf logo promi­nently in the iron of the gas ovens, achiev­ing a sort of im­mor­tal­ity when post-war news­reels filmed the cre­ma­to­ria that fu­eled the Holo­caust.

Dur­ing the 1930s, the firm’s in­volve­ment with fir­ing sys­tems led it to de­velop a mo­bile waste in­cin­er­a­tor. In May 1939, with the Buchen­wald con­cen­tra­tion camp al­ready es­tab­lished in Thuringia, and the num­ber of dead bod­ies pil­ing up, lo­cal cre­ma­to­ria were un­able to cope and the SS ap­proached Topf and Sons. Its chief engi­neer, Kurt Prüfer, adapted the firm’s waste in­cin­er­a­tor into a mo­bile oil-heated cre­ma­tion oven. An ini­tial or­der for three mo­bile ovens fol­lowed, and the firm was set on the path that led to its full-scale in­volve­ment in the Holo­caust.

As the net­work of con­cen­tra­tion camps grew – and with them SS de­mands for ever more ef­fi­cient sys­tems of dis­pos­ing of corpses – Prüfer ded­i­cated him­self to de­vel­op­ing tech­ni­cal im­prove­ments to his ovens, and Topf ex­panded its man­u­fac­tur­ing ca­pac­ity ac­cord­ingly. Most of those en­gaged in this grue­some busi­ness ex­hib­ited no trace of moral ob­jec­tion. Cre­ma­to­ri­ums with one in­cin­er­a­tion cham­ber were suc­ceeded by those with two, then three. Mo­bile ovens were soon fol­lowed by per­ma­nent cre­ma­to­ria in­side the camps, start­ing with Buchen­wald, where Prüfer and the Topf team were able to in­stall four pow­er­ful ma­chines which to­gether could con­sume 9,000 bod­ies a day. Work at Buchen­wald was fol­lowed by Dachau, then Mau­thausen, then Auschwitz-Birke­nau.

Fol­low­ing the no­to­ri­ous Wannsee con­fer­ence in Jan­uary 1942, where lead­ing Nazis agreed to im­ple­ment Hitler’s Fi­nal So­lu­tion, the mad, amoral busi­ness pro­ceeded at an even more fu­ri­ous pace. In high-level SS meet­ings at Auschwitz to con­sider the de­sign and func­tion­ing of the gas cham­bers in Bunkers 1 and 2, Prüfer of­fered to de­sign and sup­ply eight-cham­ber in­cin­er­a­tors for each bunker.

This will­ing im­mer­sion by the Topf engi­neer­ing di­vi­sion in a wholly im­moral en­ter­prise in­fected the firm. Fritz San­der, a long-stand­ing and highly re­spected Topf em­ployee, was man­ager of the fur­nace con­struc­tion di­vi­sion. Jeal­ous of Prüfer’s ob­vi­ous suc­cess in de­vel­op­ing ever-more ef­fi­cient meth­ods of corpse dis­posal, he de­cided to ap­ply his own mind to the prob­lem, and dreamed up a stom­ach-churn­ing ”corpse in­cin­er­a­tion oven for mass op­er­a­tion” and ap­plied for a patent.

In­ter­ro­gated by the Soviet au­thor­i­ties af­ter the war – for, with the ex­cep­tion of one of the Topf broth­ers who com­mit­ted sui­cide, the lead­ing Topf man­agers stood trial – San­der ex­plained that his cre­ma­to­ria were de­signed “on the con­veyor belt prin­ci­ple, with bod­ies car­ried into the ovens con­tin­u­ously by me­chan­i­cal means.”

No such cre­ma­to­rium was ever con­structed, but by 1943 Prüfer was al­ready hard at work plan­ning the ex­pan­sion of the Auschwitz death fac­tory. His de­sign for a sixth cre­ma­to­rium was based on con­tin­u­ous com­bus­tion in­dus­trial ring ovens, us­ing a cen­tral fuel source and re­duc­ing costs by up to 70%. By the time the firm might have been ready to put the pro­ject into ef­fect, Ger­many had its back to the wall, and the Nazi geno­cide pro­ject had run out of time.

The first in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the Topf com­pany’s in­volve­ment in the Holo­caust was con­ducted by the US Counter In­tel­li­gence Corps the day af­ter the lib­er­a­tion of Buchen­wald in April 1945. US of­fi­cers had seen the Topf logo dis­played promi­nently on the ovens. In July, the city of Er­furt was trans­ferred from Amer­i­can to Soviet con­trol, and sub­se­quently three Topf man­agers were in­dicted for “crim­i­nal re­spon­si­bil­ity for their par­tic­i­pa­tion in the hor­rific acts of the Hit­lerites in the con­cen­tra­tion camps,” and sub­ject to rig­or­ous in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Rus­sian ju­di­cial sys­tem.

Ex­cuses, jus­ti­fi­ca­tions, eva­sions and un­truths were swept aside. All three con­fessed to the charges laid against them and were found guilty with­out even stand­ing trial. All were sen­tenced to 25 years of hard la­bor. Prüfer died in prison in 1952. The other two were re­leased af­ter nine years as part of a Ger­man-Soviet pris­oner amnesty deal.

In Ar­chi­tects of Death, Bartlett de­scribes in fas­ci­nat­ing de­tail how a per­fectly or­di­nary man­u­fac­tur­ing firm came to ig­nore the to­tal im­moral­ity of the busi­ness it sought, en­gaged in and en­cour­aged. In parts it does not make for a pleas­ant read, but it is un­doubt­edly a salu­tary one.

(Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

THE CRE­MA­TO­RIUM in Buchen­wald. The Topf logo can be seen on the ma­chines, now part of a mu­seum at the site.

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