Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Leica Freedom Train

The Leica is the pioneer 35mm camera. It is a German product -precise,
minimalist, and utterly efficient. Behind its worldwide acceptance as a
creative tool was a family-owned, socially oriented firm that, during the
Nazi era, acted with uncommon grace, generosity and modesty.

E. Leitz Inc., designer and manufacturer of Germany's most famous
photographic product, saved its Jews.

And Ernst Leitz II, the steely eyed Protestant patriarch who headed the
closely held firm as the Holocaust loomed across Europe, acted in such a way
as to earn the title, "the photography industry's Schindler."

The 'Leica Freedom Train'

As soon as Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, Ernst
Leitz II began receiving frantic calls from Jewish associates, asking for
his help in getting them and their families out of the country.

As Christians, Leitz and his family were immune to Nazi Germany's
Nuremberg laws, which restricted the movement of Jews and limited
their professional activities.

To help his Jewish workers and colleagues, Leitz quietly established
what has become known among historians of the Holocaust as "the Leica
Freedom Train," a covert means of allowing Jews to leave Germany in the
guise of Leitz employees being assigned overseas.

Employees, retailers, family members, even friends of family members
were "assigned" to Leitz sales offices in France, Britain, Hong Kong and the
United States.

Leitz's activities intensified after the Kristallnacht of November
1938, during which synagogues and Jewish shops were burned across Germany.

Before long, German "employees" were disembarking from the ocean liner
Bremen at a New York pier and making their way to the Manhattan office of
Leitz Inc., where executives quickly found them jobs in the photographic

Each new arrival had around his or her neck the symbol of freedom - a
new Leica.

The refugees were paid a stipend until they could find work. Out of
this migration came designers, repair technicians, salespeople, marketers and
writers for the photographic press.

Keeping the story quiet

The "Leica Freedom Train" was at its height in 1938 and early 1939,
delivering groups of refugees to New York every few weeks. Then, with the
invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Germany closed its borders.

By that time, hundreds of endangered Jews had escaped to America,
thanks to the Leitzes' efforts.

How did Ernst Leitz II and his staff get away with it?

Leitz Inc. was an internationally recognized brand that reflected
credit on the newly resurgent Reich.. The company produced range-finders and other
optical systems for the German military. Also, the Nazi government desperately
needed hard currency from abroad, and Leitz's single biggest market for
optical goods was the United States.

Even so, members of the Leitz family and firm suffered for their good
works. A top executive, Alfred Turk, was jailed for working to help Jews and
freed only after the payment of a large bribe.

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

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.

(After the war, Kuhn-Leitz received numerous honors for her humanitarian
efforts, among them the Officier d'honneur des Palms Academic from France
in 1965 and the Aristide Briand Medal from the European Academy in the 1970s.)

Why has no one told this story until now?

According to the late Norman Lipton, a freelance writer and editor, the Leitz family
wanted no publicity for its heroic efforts. Only after the last member of the Leitz
family was dead did the "Leica Freedom Train" finally come to light.

It is now the subject of a book, "The Greatest Invention of the Leitz
Family: The Leica Freedom Train," by Frank Dabba Smith, a California-born
rabbi currently living in England.

1 comment:

Vanky said...

I am looking to buy the original book,but so far have not been able to find on.
If you have a copy and want to sell it, please concact me: