Holocaust History Saving the Auschwitz Oven Factory

For years, the factory which manufactured the Auschwitz ovens has been sinking into disrepair. Now, though, a movement is afoot to save the site. It's a battle against time, vandalism and entropy.

By in Erfurt, Germany

Getting to the factory is the first challenge. Walk out the back of the Erfurt train station, scamper across a busy four-lane road, squeeze past a chain-link fence and then duck through a graffiti-covered steel gate. The view that opens up on the other side is one of decay, ruin, and wreckage -- and an explosion of colorful graffiti. The factory, just 15 minutes by foot from the city center of Erfurt in former East Germany, used to belong to the company Topf & Söhne. but for almost 10 years now, it has been left to the skaters, to the sprayers, and to the elements. Walls have collapsed, roofs have caved in, intact windows are scarce and snowmelt runs down those walls that have yet to succumb. But a movement is afoot to repair parts of the industrial ruin. The Topf & Söhne factory, after all, is where the ovens of Auschwitz were manufactured along with the ventilation systems for the gas chambers.

For years, officialdom has avoided making a decision on what to do about the industrial and historical scar on the edge of Erfurt. There was little money available and no clear plan on what to do with the site. The excuses were myriad. Many assumed the city simply did not want to draw anymore Holocaust-related attention than the nearby concentration camp memorial at Buchenwald already generates.

Squatting at the oven factory

But the factory ruin became impossible to ignore. An informal support network made up of local historians and others who didn't want to see the site disappear pressured both the city of Erfurt and the state of Thuringia to act. A group of squatters, who have transformed one of the empty factory buildings into a well-known punk concert venue, have likewise called attention to the site's history. Known as "Topf Squat," they have produced a virtual tour of the factory, hung information signs on site, and even produced a documentary video -- all on their own dime. Recently, though, the state of Thuringia's State Development Association elected not to participate, and the city of Erfurt finally made the decision to act.

"We are currently negotiating with the site custodians to buy a part of the property," says Wolfgang Zweigler from the Erfurt mayor's office. "We are definitely prepared to do something. Some kind of project will result and the planning has already gotten underway."

The major hurdle to creating a memorial -- which would be the first such monument to industrial involvement in the Holocaust in Germany -- is likely to be money. The city is hoping to buy the site, or at least part of it, for a symbolic price from Erfurter Bank, which now owns the site after Erfurter Mälzerei- und Speicherbau (EMS) -- the name under which Topf & Söhne continued operations in East Germany -- went bankrupt in 1994. The support network is hoping the city will fund the renovation of at least one building on the site to house a Topf & Söhne exhibition created by the Buchenwald Memorial. Indeed, the exhibit, which was shown in Berlin's Jewish Museum over the winter and is now traveling through Germany before heading abroad, helped get the current project off the ground in the first place.

"The exhibit really sped up the process," agrees Friedemann Rincke, a historian at the Buchenwald Memorial. "The support network has been working for a long time, but the exhibit reached many more people than they were able to. The current process is very connected with the exhibit."

The flammability of human fat

J.A. Topf & Söhne began life in 1878 as a company specializing in the production of industrial ovens, brewery equipment, and chimneys. In the 1920s and 30s, the factory began manufacturing crematoriums, which were delivered throughout Germany and exported abroad, although such ovens never became a major part of the company's bottom line. During World War II, however, the Nazi SS suddenly needed an efficient method for the disposal of the thousands of corpses piling up day after day as the Holocaust mass murder accelerated. Soon, Topf & Söhne engineers were busy calculating the most efficient way to burn thousands of dead bodies -- some company employees even visited camps -- Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau among others -- to assist in the installation of the ovens and the newly designed gas-chamber ventilation systems that were created to pump out the poison gas that had collected in the rooms.

It is this history which the support network would like to document: the rooms in the administration building where top engineers calculated just how much fuel it would take to burn mass quantities of human bodies -- carefully taking into account the flammability of body fat; the shipping and receiving building next door where the ovens started on their journey to Auschwitz, and from which clerks wrote payment reminders to the chronically tardy SS; the large factory where the ovens were manufactured; and the smaller workshop where the iron doors and hinges were cast.

The question is: How can the structures be saved? In addition to entropy and vandalism, recent fires have done serious damage to the shipping and receiving building and other structures.

"The buildings are falling apart very quickly," says Eckhart Schörle, a historian with the support network who also gives periodic, informal tours through the site. "There is a worry that they could collapse entirely if nothing is done quickly to save them."

A center for learning

Given the daunting task of saving the entire factory site, the support network, and the city of Erfurt, has chosen to focus its initial attentions on the factory's administration building with hopes of acquiring additional buildings later. Indeed, in October of last year, Erfurt hired a historian to begin developing a workable concept for the planned information center. Annegret Schüle, who also designed the traveling museum exhibition and is writing a book on the history of Topf & Söhne, has been given until autumn 2007 to develop a workable project. Far from merely being a static museum or monument, she has been charged with creating an education center -- a place where young Germans, members of the fourth post-war generation, can go to learn about the Holocaust and the important role German industry played in the genocide.

And the squatters? They too have been encouraged to present a plan for what they would like to do on the site. For the moment though, they will continue organizing punk concerts and other events in their corner of the site.

"The squatters have been there for years," says Schüle. "At the moment we are only concentrating on one side of the property and the squatters have their spot on the other end. For now, the squatters seem content to continue just doing their thing."

The traveling exhibition, " The Engineers of the 'Final Solution'," is on display at the Ruhrlandmuseum in Essen, Germany, through June 25, 2006.

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