A man in a stiff white collar sat down in his office in the provincial German city of Erfurt in the Spring of 1939, to draw up a plan for what he neatly named the first “mobile oil-heated cremation oven.” It was to be delivered to the nearby concentration camp of Buchenwald.
But this engineer, Kurt Prüfer, carefully marked on his design “incineration chamber” rather than “cremation chamber,” for he completely understood the power of 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. It was a technocrats’ trick often employed as first German and then all of Europe’s “undesirables” were herded towards the “final solution” and “selected” to perish in the so-called “undressing rooms” and “saunas” of the gas chambers.
Prüfer worked for the family company Topf and Sons, a traditional brewing and malting manufacturer run by two brothers Ludwig and Ernst Wolfgang Topf. During the 1930s, Topf and Sons had branched out into building ovens for civil crematoria. Both Prüfer 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 Prüfer 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 was shovelled 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.)
What to make of the men and women of Topf and Sons? By any assessment today they must surely be monsters; 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 greenlit the Holocaust, yet they were far from fervent Nazis.
Astonishingly, from the 1930s until the end of WWII, 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 defence of his former employers, supplying a statement outlining how he had believed Ernst Wolfgang Topf had protected him.
Both the Topf brothers and Kurt Prüfer joined the Nazi party in April 1934, the last possible moment when it was acceptable to do so for any ambitious businessperson 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 Prüfer 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 that will “improve efficiency” even taking into consideration the likelihood of “frozen corpses.”
An office feud between Kurt Prüfer 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 Prüfer 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. Prüfer 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. As the end of the was drew closer, the SS finally abandoned Auschwitz to Soviet forces, after forcing most of the remaining inmates to undertake death marches to other concentration camps deeper within Germany and Austria. By January of 1945, the end was near, but even in the final days Kurt Prüfer 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.”
The story of Topf and Sons proves that words matter. Every bland description and technocrats’ lie allowed Topf and Sons to be 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 as people at all. During his interrogation by Soviet forces Kurt Prüfer calmly lies about his role in the process, but when pressed about whether he knew that innocent people were being murdered and burned in his ovens he eventually replies — “Yes I knew that.” Fritz Sander describes with some pride his “Corpse Incineration Oven for Mass Operation” and then states “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,” while, for the rest of his life, Ernst Wolfgang Topf maintained, “No one in our company was guilty of anything at all.”
Building the technology for the Holocaust had a become a passion project for the men at Topf and Sons, and it was not even a profitable one; Topf and Sons never derived more than 3% of its income from contracts with the SS. Driven by self-preservation, office rivalries and personal greed, the men of Topf and Sons had human motives for heinous behavior. It is their very ordinariness that makes them so appalling.
Karen Bartlett is the author of Architects of Death: The Family Who Engineered the Death Camps, available now.