A "good" story for a change - truly remarkable.
LEICA AND THE JEWS
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
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 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.
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 cameras, 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 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 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
Officer 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.
Thank you for reading the above, and if you feel inclined as I did to
pass it along to others, please do so. It only takes a few minutes.
Memories of the righteous should live on.