The first Leica camera prototypes were built by Oskar Barnack at Ernst Leitz Optische Werke, in Wetzlar (north of Frankfurt) in 1913. Intended as a compact camera for landscape photography, particularly for challenging mountain trips, the Leica was the first practical 35 mm camera. Soon after Ernst Leitz II (1871-1956) became sole owner of the business in 1920, the Leica prototypes had moved to the manufacturing stage. It was very successful.
Leica advertisement, 1938
Ernst Leitz II ran the company with the same humanitarian values his father had held, but in the years just before WW2 erupted in 1939, many companies were moving in the other direction - fostering a close association with the Nazi regime. So although there was still time to help their Jewish employees escape, very few companies bothered. Yet the Leitz family, designer and manufacturer of Germany's most famous photographic product, actually tried to save all its Jewish workers.
As soon as Adolf Hitler became German chancellor in 1933, Ernst Leitz II increasingly got worried 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 protected from Nazi Germany 's Nuremberg laws, which controlled the work, movement and liberties only of Jews.
To help his Jewish workers and colleagues, Leitz carefully designed a programme that would allow Jews to leave Germany; they were Leitz employees who were simply being "assigned" overseas. Employees, retailers and family members were each given a Leica camera and were assigned to Leitz sales offices in USA, France, Britain & Hong Kong.
And not just long-standing members of the firm. The Guardian said he began taking on a string of young Jewish apprentices from the town of Wetzlar, to train them from scratch so that they could work abroad. After their training, Leitz personally applied for an exit permit to send the new employees abroad, to assist in generating sales.
Particularly after the Kristallnacht catastrophe of November 1938, German employees travelled on the ocean liner Bremen and made their way to the Manhattan, London or Paris offices of Leitz Inc. Apparently an editor of the Leica Magazine called every Leitz account in Britain, France and the USA, to help place the new employees in local jobs in the photographic industry. Leitz paid full salary for 3 months, and half salary for the next three months! It must have been difficult at first since the recent arrivals couldn’t speak a word of English or French, but out of this migration came some of the best designers, repair technicians, salespeople and writers for the photographic press.
Ernst Leitz II (1871-1956)
The Leica Freedom Train, as the programme came to be called, peaked in 1938 and early 1939, delivering groups of refugees to safety every few weeks. Then, with the invasion of Poland in Sept 1939, Germany sealed off its borders. By that time, hundreds of endangered Jews had already escaped abroad, thanks to Leitz's heroic efforts. The programme saved their lives and the lives of their children.
How did Ernst Leitz II and his staff get away with it? Leitz Inc. was an internationally recognised brand that reflected credit on the powerful Third Reich and Leitz was a man above suspicion. The company produced range-finders and other optical systems for the German military. Also the German government desperately needed hard currency from abroad, and Leitz's single biggest market for optical goods was the USA. To the Nazi government, the programme was transferring skilled salesmen abroad, to generate hard currency sales.
How ironic that, due to the Nazis' dependence on the military optics that Leitz's factory produced, as well as their belief in the importance of the Leica camera for their propaganda purposes, the company was able to get Jewish workers and their families out of Germany! The Guardian said that the government actually DID know what he was doing; that the Gestapo turned a blind eye, so important was it to them that production at the plant continued.
Even so, members of the Leitz family did not get off scot-free. One Leitz executive, Alfred Turk, was gaoled for helping Jews. Ernst Leitz's own daughter, Dr Elsie C. Kühn-Leitz (1903-85), was imprisoned by the Gestapo after she was caught at the border, helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland. Both Turk and Kühn-Leitz were eventually freed, but the risks were clearly very high.
In all, nearly 300 people benefited from the programme, perhaps two thirds in the USA and one third in Britain and other parts of Europe. Yet when Ernest Leitz II died in 1956, his efforts remained unrewarded, as far as I can see. His daughter Dr Kuhn-Leitz, on the other hand, received many honours for her humanitarian efforts. So if the story was known after the war, why has it been forgotten since? And why did the family insist that no story be published until the last member of the Leitz family was dead?
Read the book The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train, written by Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith. And a film is being made about the great courage of the Leitz family/company during the years leading up to WW2. The film, called One Camera, One Life, is being produced by Liz Boeder and Doris Bettencourt, and directed by Mark de Paola.