LEICA AND THE JEWS OF GERMANY DURING THE HOLOCAUST

If you needed a good (or better) reason to buy Leica products, other than their extraordinary high quality, here is another which has nothing to do with the quality of lenses or cameras.


LEICA AND THE JEWS DURING THE HOLOCAUST

The Leica is the one of the pioneers in the field of 35mm cameras and arguably, the finest of them all. It is a German product: precise, minimalist, and 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.

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.” 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 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 Kristallnacht in November 1938 when synagogues and Jewish shops were damaged and burned all 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. From there, executives quickly found them jobs in the photographic industry. Each new arrival had around his or her neck the symbol of freedom – a new Leica camera. 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.

Mini Leica, now Garry’s favorite camera

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. After the invasion of Poland on September 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 cameras, rangefinders, high-quality lenses, and other optical equipment for the German military. The Nazi government desperately needed hard currency from abroad. 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 questioning. She also fell under suspicion when she attempted to improve the living conditions of 700 to 800 Ukrainian slave laborers, all women, who had been assigned to work in the plant during the 1940s. When the war finally ended, Kuhn-Leitz received numerous honors for her humanitarian efforts, among them the Officier d’honneur des Palms Academic from France in 1965 as well as 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 refused 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 was the subject of a book, “The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train,” (2002) by Frank Dabba Smith, a California-born Rabbi currently living in England. This book is currently out-of-print. There is another book, written for children which is still in print entitled “Dr. Ernst Leitz II and the Leica Train to Freedom: Defying the Nazis with a Camera.” This paperback was published in August 4, 2015 by A Book by Me  (Author), Taylor Beitzel (Author), Samantha Beitzel (Illustrator).
The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations (Hebrew: גַן חֲסִידִי אוּמות הָעוֹלָם‎) is part of the much larger Yad Vashem complex located on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem.

Thank you for reading this. If you feel inclined to pass on, please feel free to do so.


Memories of the righteous should live on. Righteousness must live on. We need the light.




Categories: Cameras, freedom, Holocaust, lenses, Photography, righteousness

Tags: , , , , ,

13 replies

  1. I’d never heard this story either. Thanks for sharing it.

    Like

  2. So good to hear that others, besides Schindler, pursued this objective in one way or the other. My personal view of Leica, besides the exorbitant pricing, has been forever altered. Thanks Marilyn.

    Like

  3. I like to hear about those who stood up to that evil regime.
    Leslie

    Like

  4. An amazing story. Thanks so much for sharing it.

    Like

    • I’m surprised I hadn’t learned about it earlier. It’s encouraging that amidst the evil, good people still exist. We may need our own!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Israel has many places dedicated to those who died during the Nazi rule in Europe. Yad Vashem and it’s associated gardens and pathways is the largest one, but there are others in Jerusalem and in every major city in the country. I only went to Yad Vashem once. Some of the paintings that emerged from the camps are emotionally shattering. There aren’t a lot of stories or words in the museum. It’s mostly art and imagery and photography. Outside is the The Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations (Hebrew: גַן חֲסִידִי אוּמות הָעוֹלָם‎) which is part of the much larger Yad Vashem complex on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem. There is a brick pathway that runs through the gardens and other buildings and each brick has the name of someone who died.

      When I had company, people almost always wanted to see Yad Vashem. I would take them there, but I would wait outside. I could not go in again. And now, to see a spectre like that raised here is double shattering.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Love stories like this. Thanks for sharing.

    Like

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