When the Nazis came to power in Germany there were plenty of business men and women who saw opportunities.
Some of them saw opportunities in exploiting the environment created by the NSDAP, especially in relation to the ‘Jewish Question’ they would actively help the Nazis for their own betterment.
On the other hand there were those who saw opportunities to do good and help those most affected by the Nazi regime. Ernst Leitz II and his family were among those who used their influence and contacts to do good.
Ernst Leitz’s optics company, founded in Wetzlar in 1869, had a tradition of enlightened behavior toward its workers. Pensions, sick leave, health insurance — all were instituted early on at Leitz, which depended for its work force upon generations of skilled employees, many of whom were Jewish.
Ernst Leitz GmbH, is now three companies: Leica Camera AG, Leica Geosystems AG, and Leica Microsystems GmbH. known for the Leica cameras.
When Ernst Leitz sr. died in 1920, his son, Ernst Leitz II, took over, leading the company through the war years, as well as the introduction of the Leica 35mm camera in 1925. When Adolf Hitler became the German Chancellor in 1933, the younger Leitz almost immediately started receiving frantic calls and letters from Jewish associates, asking for the nearly impossible– help getting them and their families out of Germany. Since the Leitz family was not Jewish, they were not subject to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, which– among other things– greatly restricted where Jews could and could not live, as well as limiting and scrutinizing their professional and civic activities.
In order to help, Leitz quietly embarked on what history would later dub the Leica Freedom Train. The plan seemed simple enough, but could yield dire consequences for all concerned if ever discovered. The plan helped Jews leave the country covertly, under the pretense of Leitz employees being transferred to work overseas.
Employees, retailers, family members, and sometimes even friends of family members were “assigned” to Leitz sales offices, primarily in the United States, but also in France, England, and even Hong Kong. Efforts intensified after Kristallnacht— Crystal Night– in November of 1938, during which Jews were beaten and killed while their buildings, shops, and synagogues were vandalized and burned all across Germany.
Employees arriving in New York were met at the pier and taken to the Leitz Manhattan offices and showroom on 5th Avenue, where they received help finding jobs, homes, and anything else they needed to embark on their new lives.
The refugees were given a living allowance if finding work proved to be difficult. Each was also given a Leica camera– not because they needed new cameras, but because they were easily exchangeable for cash if necessary. Many among this wave of employees became product designers, repair technicians, sales people, marketers, and even writers in the photography industry.
The Leica Freedom Train was operating at its height in 1938, and into early 1939, dropping off groups of refugees around the world every few weeks. It was not until the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 that the country’s borders were officially closed and Leitz’s rescue operation came to an unfortunate end.
Leitz’s daughter, Elsie Kuhn-Leitz, was imprisoned by the Gestapo after she was caught at the border, helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland. She eventually was freed but endured rough treatment in the course of questioning. She also fell under suspicion when she attempted to improve the living conditions of 700 to 800 Ukrainian slave laborers, all of them women, who had been assigned to work in the plant during the 1940s
The company did produce rangefinders and other optics for the German military. Other Nazi officials especially propaganda experts believed strongly in the Leica cameras as a propaganda tool. That;s why it is believed that some local Nazi officials turned a blind eye to the exploits of the Leitz family.
This entire affair may have never come to light, had it not been for the dedicated research of a California-born rabbi living in England. Written by Frank Dabba Smith and published in 2002 by the American Photographic Historical Society, “The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train” details the family’s efforts to quietly intervene in one of history’s greatest injustices. When Ernst Leitz II was posthumously honored by the Anti-Defamation League with the Courage to Care Award in 2007.The rabbi of the Harrow and Wembley Progressive Synagogue in northwest London and a Leica enthusiast, has reconstructed their stories through photographs, documents and letters of thanks from survivors and their families
“Under considerable risk and in defiance of Nazi policy, Ernst Leitz took valiant steps to transport his Jewish employees and others out of harm’s way,” said Abraham Foxman, director of ADL. “If only there had been more Oskar Schindlers, more Ernst Leitzs, then less Jews would have perished.”
Many thanks to Norman Stone for drawing my attention to the Leica Freedom train story.
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