|Meanwhile, a certain Kurt Prüfer [Document 1],
born in Erfurt on 21st April 1891, had been hired by the firm on 15th June 1911
at a monthly salary of 90 RM. He started work the next day as building foreman
["Bauführer"]. The new man was admittedly short on education,
but he had ambition and was not afraid of work. After finishing basic secondary
schooling ["Realschule"], he worked on building sites from the age of
l4 to 17 and there he quickly realized that his rudimentary education offered
no future. At 16 he started attending courses in building subjects, then for
two years he studied structural engineering ["Hochbau"] at the Erfurt
Royal Vocational School of Building. From the age of 19 to 20, he was employed
as building technician and foreman by two other firms before being taken on by
Topf. Although Topf by now had a "crematorium construction" division,
Prüfer cannot have worked there, for when he was called up on 12th October
1912, he was employed in the malting installations division. By now he was much
better qualified: he could produce design, construction and installation
drawings, perform static calculations and install the equipment produced. He
was out of luck however, for while he was doing his military service with the
Erfurt 71st Infantry Regiment, the Great War broke out on 2nd August 1914. He
went right through the war without injury, and by the time it was all over, on
9th November 1918, he had the rank of Sergeant of the Reserve
["Vizefeldwebel der Reserves"]. The temptation to remain in the army
may have touched him at this precarious time, for he was not demobilized until
March 1919, having had to work on winding up the affairs of his unit. Back in
civvy street, Prüfer continued his education. From April 1919 to 12th
March 1920, he spent two semesters studying civil engineering
["Tiefbau"], at the Erfurt National Vocational School of Building. He
was taken back by Topf on the following 1st April. In 1925 he was promoted to
engineer and was thus entitled to a commission of 1% on any sales he made. In
1928, he became head of the "Krematoriumbau" [crematorium
construction] division. The runaway inflation of the years 1922-24 does not
seem to have had any effect on Messrs Topf, thus confirming that this inflation
was above all a defensive economic weapon aimed at preventing payment of the
"reparations" demanded by the Allies.
In 1929, Ernst-Wolfgang
Topf entered the firm to assist his elder brother, Ludwig Junior, and his
mother. It was an inauspicious time. The Wall Street "Black Friday"
of 24th October 1929 was disastrous for the world economic situation.
Protectionism, falling volumes of trade and mass unemployment resulted. In
Germany. there were one and a half million unemployed at the end of 1929. The
country was on the verge of bankruptcy several times in 1930, 1931, and 1932,
and in July 1932 there were seven million unemployed and a further ten million
who worked scarcely half time. Nothing was going right: the government was
floundering and business was at a standstill. 1932 was a dark year for Topf.
There were few if any orders, and the two directors, probably after having made
many of the workers redundant, were considering pruning the supervisory staff.
Hitler came to power on 30th January 1933, but the situation did not improve
overnight and the first few months of the new year remained catastrophic. On
29th March, Prüfer was warned that he would probably lose his job on 30th
September. However, the two directors were reluctant to get rid of him and gave
him the means to defend himself commercially: on 13th April, his commission was
increased from 1 to 2%, with retroactive effect from 1st April. Losing
Prüfer would have been a real blow to Topf, as the entire crematorium
division was now dependent on him. Outside Topf, competing firms had got to
know of his impending departure and it seems that in June or July, Didier of
Berlin expressed interest in hiring him. The two directors were warned about
this by their Berlin representative. On 28th September, the threatened
redundancy was postponed until 31st March 1934. The Nazi regime was becoming
established, internal unrest was waning and business was picking up. On 15th
March 1934, the threat of dismissal was finally removed. Engineer Prüfer
had had a very close call, and he was never to forget it.
Archives, Bestand 2/555a]
| Photograph from Kurt Prüfer's personal file taken
between 1935 and 1940 showing him at the age of about 45, when he was senior
engineer and in charge of Topf's, Division D IV "Crematorium Construction."
Having escaped threatened redundancy following Hitler's accession to power, and
being afraid of becoming unemployed at his age, he subsequently did not
hesitate to do deals with the Devil. Legitimately involved in cremation
activities, in order to help his firm and strengthen his position within it, he
did everything to pull off the deal of a lifetime in selling furnaces to KL
Auschwitz, and at the same time involving Topf in the creation of homicidal gas
chambers at Birkenau.
|It is not known when Prüfer joined the Nazi Party
[Document 2], but it
was probably in 1934 or 1935, after the threat of redundancy had been removed
and his position in the firm had been consolidated. Finding himself unemployed
at the age of 42 would have been terrible for Prüfer, as so many others
are unfortunately finding for themselves today. Only two Berlin firms, Didier
and Kori, would have been able to offer him a position similar to that he held
with Topf, but as the situation in 1933 was scarcely any better for those two
firms, it is doubtful that he could have been taken on. Having arrived at his
position thanks to working his way up, he was vulnerable in the face of younger
men with better paper qualifications and a lower starting salary. His only hope
lay in the new regime that was being established, and he must certainly have
known some of the new elite from his war years. What is more, Prüfer
fitted the profile of those now in power or close to them: war veteran,
self-taught, versed in construction techniques, an engineer. The New Germany
was based on people like him, and his enrolment in the Nazi Party was at one
and the same time both his thanks to those who had saved his situation and his
licence to enter future markets.
As from 1935, the German economy
took a definite turn for the better, and as from 1st January, Ludwig Junior,
Johanna and Ernst-Wolfgang officially took control of the firm. In fact, only
the two brothers actively managed it, and had been doing so unofficially for
five years [as shown by their initials, "LT" for Ludwig Topf and
"ET" for Ernst-Wolfgang Topf, found on the firm's correspondence].
The prospects became so favourable that it was no longer a matter of
redundancies but rather of recruitment. For example, one Gustav Braun was hired
in Berlin as production engineer at the beginning of May. On 30th November, the
new structure of the firm was registered with the Erfurt Chamber of Commerce
under the number HRA 3234. Immediately afterwards, on 2nd December, Prüfer
was made chief engineer ["Oberingenieur"]. In addition to his new
status, because of his experience with the secretariat of his army unit in
1914-18 and his membership of the Nazi Party, Pr&uum;fer was made delegate for
the Topf personnel, a voluntary post that he did not hold very long.
1939, Topf had about 1200 employees. The firm became a supplier to the
Wehrmacht and stepped up the purchase of materials in order to be able to
fulfil these army contracts. Given the status of an enterprise "essential
to the war economy" Topf duly contributed to the "Adolf Hitler
Endowment Fund of German Industry." By the end of 1940 the firm had
completed 342,328.87 RM worth of contracts for diverse installations for the
army. In addition, there were trade links with "Technoimport" in
Moscow. For the two directors, these brilliant results were clouded somewhat by
the death of their mother, Else Topf, the widow of Ludwig Senior. By this time,
Prüfer appeared to be a man who had arrived. He was sure of himself,
confident of his own value and that of his products, often preemptory in his
manner [report of 15th May 1939 by Herr Machemehl and telephone call of 8th
July 1940 transcribed by Herr Kleinhans].
Thanks to his Party card.
Prüfer was able to introduce himself into concentration camp SS circles,
where the demand for cremation furnaces was increasing for two reasons: high
mortality and fear of disease. His first order was to come from Dachau, the
camp that had been the first to "open," on 22nd March 1933, but he
was not the only one to have been consulted. The camp administration had first
asked the design office of an industrial furnace manufacturer,
["Ingenieurbüro / Industrieofenbau"] W MÜLLER of Allach, to
produce a cremation furnace, Allach being the location of the famous SS
porcelain factory, part of which was transferred close to Dachau in 1937.
Müller had already supplied the SS with furnaces for porcelain. This firm
first proposed a gas-fired cremation furnace, then on learning that the camp
had no town gas supply, Müller proposed a coke-fired furnace in June 1937.
They seem to have been unsuccessful however, and it was Prüfer who landed
the contract. In November 1939, he installed in Dachau a two-muffle cremation
furnace, of a design not found anywhere else, at a cost of 8,750 RM.