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Friday, September 2, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Bitter Legacy Of Family That Made Ovens Of Auschwitz

Los Angeles Times

ERFURT, Germany - The image was unforgettable: Oskar Schindler climbing out of his Mercedes-Benz, noticing a flurry of ash drifting down from the sky, sniffing the wind, flicking with puzzled irritation the flakes from his windshield and his trim, double-breasted suit.

Viewers of the movie "Schindler's List" know that this apparent midsummer snowstorm was really human ash, the incinerated remains of the Jews and others gassed at Hitler's death camps. What viewers may not have known is that such storms were the patented work of a family business here in east-central Germany, A.J. Topf & Sohne. During World War II, the company made the ovens used to dispose of the bodies of those murdered at Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald.

Ovens helped hide evidence

If it hadn't been for Topf ovens, the Nazis would have had a more difficult time killing so many and leaving so little evidence. And, chillingly, there are indications that the family was proud of its work. A visitor to the Holocaust memorial site at Buchenwald can inspect the old crematories and see the ovens, the doors emblazoned with the name Topf in Gothic brass letters.

Today too, half a century later, the family's factory still stands on a side street in the Thuringian capital of Erfurt, not far from the family villa, set on a large tract of urban parkland. The Topfs' property was seized by the Soviets at the end of the war; the factory fell into disrepair; and the villa swimming pool is full of dirt. But no matter. Today, in a land claim that is remarkable even in a country plagued by post-Communist property tangles, a new generation of Topfs is trying to get back the old manufacturing domain.

"Heirs have the duty to take responsibility for the past," says Dagmar Topf, 50, a therapist from the German state of Schleswig-Holstein who, in the name of the Topf brothers' descendants, filed a claim in 1990 on the factory, park and villa. The parkland alone is said to be worth at least $2.5 million. But Topf, the daughter-in-law of a late factory director, argues that it is social consciousness, and not greed, that motivates her. If the factory were in family hands, she says, she and the other Topfs would find ways of running it that might somehow atone for the past.

"This company was involved in the terrible things that happened," she says. "My personal task now is to see to it that such things never happen again."

How could such a land claim prosper? Why should the German legal system entertain the arguments of a woman whose Nazi-collaborator in-laws were apprehended, interrogated and irreversibly expropriated?

Return of property unlikely

The Topf descendants may never get their family's property back - the head of the land-claims office in Erfurt predicts as much - but the eagerness with which Dagmar Topf has pursued her mission says much about the chaotic state of property ownership in what used to be East Germany.

The younger Topfs are not the only western Germans who have been trying, since 1990, to lay claim to a piece of eastern German real estate. During the Third Reich, the Nazis seized homes and businesses from Jews and other perceived enemies of the state; then, when the Soviets rolled into what would later become East Germany, more properties were expropriated.

Then, for the four decades that East Germany did business as a communist country, the authorities treated all this seized real estate as "the people's" property, and parceled it out.

Reunification provided chance

With Germany's reunification in 1990, the authorities gave eastern Germany's dispossessed, and their offspring, the chance to set things right. Anyone whose property was confiscated between 1933 and 1945, or between 1949 and 1990, was empowered to demand restitution or compensation.

That was when Dagmar Topf made her move.

As of this year, 1.2 million people have come forward in Germany, seeking more than 2.7 million pieces of real estate in the former East.

"We will do our best to see that more than half of the claims are settled by the end of 1995," says Hans-Jurgen Schafer, president of the Federal Department of Unsettled Property Ownership.

The case of the Nazi oven works started more than a century ago, when Julius Andreas Topf, a blacksmith, opened a furnace and heating-equipment foundry in Erfurt. Topf had heard that in Milan, Italy, the city fathers were experimenting with cremation, and it struck him as a business opportunity. He asked his engineers to work on the burning of corpses, and even joined a promotional society called Friends of Cremation.

By the late 1920s, J.A. Topf & Sohne, operated by the founder's sons, Ernst Wolfgang and Ludwig, was selling crematories to cities as far away as Lisbon, Portugal, and Brussels, Belgium.

Then came the rise of Adolf Hitler. The Jews were herded into ghettos, then shipped to concentration camps, and eventually selected for forced labor or gassing. At this point, the activities of J.A. Topf & Sohne become somewhat murky.

How much did Ernst Wolfgang and Ludwig know about the mass murders? Nothing, insists Dagmar Topf: "I feel quite sure that they didn't know how their ovens were being used."

Records show that the brothers joined the National Socialist Party in 1935, but Dagmar Topf maintains they did so only under pressure from the Nazis.

But does that explain the zeal with which J.A. Topf & Sohne fulfilled its contracts? One company engineer, Kurt Prufer, took out a patent on his "Auschwitz style" twin-chambered oven, boasting that its burning capacity - 30 to 36 corpses in 10 hours - easily beat the competition. How could he not have known what was going on?

"Yes, it's true that the company built four big crematoria at Auschwitz," says Dagmar Topf. "But at that time, you could have called them civil crematoria."

At the end of the war, when Germany was divided among the Allies, the administration of Erfurt, a state capital not far from Buchenwald, fell to the Soviets. Ludwig Topf took his life in the villa. Ernst Wolfgang hastened to the French-administered zone in the West, eventually going into business there.

"What was burned in those ovens was already dead," he told a German court in the early 1960s. "You can't hold the builders of the ovens responsible for the deaths of the people who were burned in them."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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