Saving the Auschwitz Oven Factory

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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.

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 to the city than the nearby concentration camp memorial at Buchenwald already generates.

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."

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