by Karen Bartlett
When Hartmut Topf was a small boy, he was captivated by puppets. On a warm summer’s day in 1930s Berlin, he would sit with his sisters under the blossom of the fruit tree in the family’s back garden while their otherwise rather taciturn father acted out puppet shows through the dining room window. With Hitler in power, the city was already in the grip of the Third Reich, but the horrors of that regime remained hidden from Hartmut, who enjoyed collecting and swapping Nazi belt-buckles, badges and toy planes with boyish enthusiasm.
At night Hartmut lay in bed beneath a wooden puppet carved by the father of his friend Hans—dreaming of that other world that puppet theatre could take him to; a world where he could express all of his thoughts and feelings, where he could soar or even die on stage. Not a world of silence and secrets, where his father and uncle whispered their worries for the future, and one day his friend Hans would simply vanish—and Hartmut would know to never question where he had gone.
In “Architects of Death” Hartmut Topf returns to his childhood memories, peels back the layers of his complicated family history, and explores the legacy of bearing the name of an industrial dynasty who engineered the cremation ovens used in the Holocaust. As that young boy in Berlin, Hartmut knew only that his family was related to the esteemed Topf and Sons—an industrial malting and furnace company in his father’s hometown of Erfurt. It would not be until the war was over, and his father had vanished as a Soviet prisoner of war, that he would discover the truth. Sitting in a darkened cinema, Hartmut saw the name Topf and Sons stamped in iron above the cremation ovens of a concentration camp. Millions of people had been murdered, and then cremated, using Topf and Sons technology. For Hartmut, it would mean a lifetime of trying to piece together the story of what Topf and Sons had done, and what role his relations, and their employees, had played in designing and driving the Holocaust.
While Hartmut was still enjoying a carefree childhood in Berlin, one man, wearing a dark suit and a stiff white collar, sat down in his office in Erfurt in the Spring of 1939 to draw up a plan for what he neatly named the first “mobile oil-heated cremation oven” to be delivered to the nearby concentration camp of Buchenwald.
This man was the engineer Kurt Prufer, and he carefully marked on his design “incineration chamber” rather than “cremation chamber” for he completely understood the power of his words. With a few strokes of his pen, his bland description disguised the red line between his previous work, serving the life and death of an ordinary community—and building the technology to fuel mass murder.
Prufer worked for Topf and Sons, at the time of the war under the leadership of Ludwig and Ernst Wolfgang Topf, two of Hartmut”s second cousins. During the 1930s Topf and Sons had branched out into building ovens for civil crematoria and both Prufer and his boss, Ludwig Topf, considered themselves the leading lights of a new movement to bring dignity to death and reverence to human remains. The product they developed and sold throughout Europe was lauded in a company brochure as “the purest expression of perfection in cremation technology”, promising an odorless smokeless, dispatch of human bodies, which were burned solely in super-heated air.
Topf and Sons’ work for the SS in serving the Nazi’s concentration camps was quite different: here Prufer and his colleagues stood with watches in front of the gas chambers of Auschwitz timing the death and incineration of thousands of victims to perfect a more efficient killing technique. Bodies were shoveled one on top of another into a single chamber, and burned directly in the flames—their ashes unidentifiable and intermingling. Yet they remained careful to maintain the falsehood that there was some dignity in death—Topf and Sons also supplied false firebricks and urns for non-Jewish victims whose families were allowed to claim their remains. In reality, mixed ashes, sawdust and general dust were shoveled indiscriminately into each urn which was then stamped with a false identity number (the families of Jewish victims were not even allowed the comfort of this lie).
These were the men and women of Topf and Sons: the engineers who drew up the plans, the secretaries who saw the memos, the accounts department who stamped the orders, and the playboy Directors, Ernst Wolfgang and Ludwig Topf, who signed every letter to the SS with the words, “always at your service”. These were the office-workers who gave the green light to the Holocaust, yet they were far from fervent Nazis.
Astonishingly, from the 1930s until the end of World War II, Topf and Sons was a hotbed of Nazi opposition, housing workers who were often knowingly part of the communist-resistance, while the Topf brothers themselves sheltered several half-Jewish employees, including one, Willy Wiemokli, who saw the plans for the crematoria at Auschwitz. After the war, Wiemokli discovered that his own father had been murdered at Auschwitz, and most likely burned in an oven built and installed by Topf and Sons—yet he still spoke out in defense of his former employers, supplying a statement outlining how he had believed Ernst Wolfgang Topf had protected him.
Both the Topf brothers and Kurt Prufer joined the Nazi party in April 1934, the last possible moment when it was acceptable to do so for any ambitious business person in the Third Reich. Yet rather than expressing horror and terror when they discovered the true purpose of the Topf and Sons contracts with the SS, they reacted with total indifference towards the suffering of their victims.
After developing the first crematoria for Buchenwald, Kurt Prufer wrote to his employers demanding a bonus for work he had proudly pursued “in his own free time.” His wish was granted. “Rest assured” Ernst Wolfgang Topf wrote to the SS in November 1941, the company will provide a new design for crematoria at Auschwitz which will “improve efficiency” even taking into consideration the likelihood of “frozen corpses.”
An office feud between Kurt Prufer and his senior manager, Fritz Sander, prompted the latter to invent his own design for a concentration camp oven. Sander’s plan for a “Corpse Incineration Oven for Mass Operation” seems almost a replication of hell, where piles of corpses are shoveled down into a ring of fire and the bodies are used as fuel to continuously burn other bodies. In a memo, Sander, who had previously shown no interest in cremation ovens at all, described the process to his employers as a superb way or “restoring hygiene” in “war-related conditions.” The Topf brothers, more interested in funding their lavish lifestyle, drinking and womanizing, approved it without comment. Only Kurt Prufer took issue with the design, claiming that it would not work in practice—and coming up with his own alternative equally deplorable design instead.
The work of Topf and Sons was no longer just enabling the Holocaust; Prufer and the Topf brothers were now taking the initiative in encouraging the SS to go further in their murderous regime, designing more efficient ventilation systems for the gas chambers at Auschwitz so that they could kill more people. By January 1945, the end was near, but even in the final days Kurt Prufer and Topf and Sons planned to recreate the killing system at Auschwitz at Mauthausen camp in Austria where they relished the prospect of fully taking control on an entire “extermination center.”
In every bland description and technocrats” lie Topf and Sons remained supremely indifferent to their de-humanized victims. The final statements of these men, as they were held to account for their actions after the war, showed that they had never once considered the millions of victims of their technology. During his interrogation by Soviet forces, Kurt Prufer calmly lied about his role in the process, and then, when pressed about whether he knew that innocent people were being murdered and burned in his ovens, eventually replied—“Yes I knew that.” Fritz Sander described with some pride his “Corpse Incineration Oven for Mass Operation” and then stated, “As a German engineer and employee of the Topf company, I felt it was my duty to help Hitler’s Germany to victory, even if that resulted in the annihilation of people.”
As Hartmut Topf grew up as a young man in West Germany those questions of duty and responsibility would continue to haunt him. While the rest of his family remained silent, he was determined to expose the truth behind the lie perpetrated by his cousin, Ernst Wolfgang Topf, that “No one in our company was guilty of anything at all.” Today, thanks to the work of Hartmut Topf and a small group of supporters, the building that was once the headquarters of Topf and Sons is a memorial to the victims of their crimes, and an archive of the company’s grim innovations is preserved for all to read and consider. He says: “I inherited the name. I did not inherit the company, fortunately. Even so, I felt an obligation. As a child, I bathed in the glory of being a Topf, and now I feel I have to tell the horror story of their infamy. I have to make my contribution. That is my responsibility.”
KAREN BARTLETT is a writer and journalist based in London. She has written extensively for the Sunday Times, The Times, The Guardian, and WIRED from Africa, India, and the US, and has presented and produced for BBC Radio. Most recently, she worked with Eva Schloss, writing her Sunday Times bestselling autobiography After Auschwitz: A Story of Heartbreak and Survival by the Stepsister of Anne Frank.
Tags: architects of death, hartmut topf, Holocaust, topf and sons, WWII