ERFURT, GERMANY — 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 & Soehne. During World War II, the company made the ovens used to dispose of the bodies of those murdered at Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald.
If it hadn't been for Topf ovens, the Nazis would have had a far harder time of 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 handsomely 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 bizarre land claim, one that is remarkable even in a country plagued by post-Communist property tangles, a new generation of Topfs is trying to get the old manufacturing domain back.
"Heirs have the duty to take responsibility for the past," says Dagmar Topf, 50, a therapist from the northernmost 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 Ms. Topf, the daughter-in-law of a late factory director, argues that it is social consciousness, and not greed, that motivates her and those she represents. 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."
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.
The case of the Nazi oven works started over 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 good 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 & Soehne, 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 & Soehne 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 insists they did so only under pressure from the Nazis. "You have to understand about German history," she says. "If you didn't go along with the system, you had lots of problems."
But does that explain the zeal with which J.A. Topf & Soehne fulfilled its contracts? One company engineer, Kurt Pruefer, 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. Pruefer went on to invent a 46-chambered oven, and reportedly won the nickname "the Wizard of Cremation" around the Topf factory. 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."
The German government has rejected most of the Topf descendants' claims to the Erfurt property -- on technical, not moral, grounds. The German unification treaty says that nothing expropriated by the Soviets between 1945 and 1949 can be given back, and the Topf factory was seized during that time.
That doesn't stop Dagmar Topf. She is combing the corporate and German state archives.