10 January 2012

Leica cameras and its Jewish employees: 1938

In 1849 Carl Kellner had established an optical institute in Wetzlar for the development of lenses and microscopes. Ernst Leitz I (1843-1920) became a partner in the company in 1865 and took over sole management in 1869. Ernst Leitz was a socially aware employer whose humanitarian attitude to his employees was best seen in his whole-hearted acceptance of health insurance, pension and housing schemes, and, by 1899, an eight-hour day. The number of his employees expanded to 120.

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.


Hermes said...

As so often Helen you fill in gaps I had vaguely heard about but are so fascinating. What a great family.

Andrew said...

I knew nothing about that and I suppose Leica wasn't the only company to do this. Leica lenses are surely the most respected in the world.

Hels said...


I will be lecturing later this year on the history of the inter-war years. One of the lectures will be about the heroes of German-controlled Europe, who at huge risk to themselves, tried to save children, Jews, gypsies and socialists. In doing the research, the Leica Company immediately grabbed my attention!

Hels said...


agreed. Leica was soooo respected, it got away with an amazing rescue project. Perhaps some good reader will tell us which other companies had the confidence to try that. There must have been some.

the foto fanatic said...

To a photo and camera buff, Leica cameras and lenses are still amongst the most desirable equipment today. Unfortunately their (justifiably) high price puts them out of reach of Joe Average.

How wonderful to find that the company that produces such an icon was so compassionate and its owners so altruistic.

P. M. Doolan said...

A fascinating story. And, like many genuine heros, what a humble, modest man.

Hels said...

foto fanatic,

isn't it amazing that one company has kept up its unrivalled standard of excellence since the beginning. I assume it is because Leica focused on scientific perfection in its original lenses and microscopes (mid 19th century), and carried that perfection over to its cameras (World War 1).

The company must have invested a GREAT deal of money into training each intake of designers and camera makers.

Hels said...


not only did Ernst Leitz II take the responsibility of his own heroic decision-making, he also involved just about every member of his world wide sales empire.

Staff from the Leica Magazine called all overseas Leitz accounts, to place the new employees in local photographic jobs. Foreign Leica outlets took on the refugees as technicians and salespeople. New apprentices from Wetzlar were trained up by the Leica professionals more quickly than was usual.

An amazing effort.

ChrisJ said...

I cannot count how many times I have heard that the German people were just dupes and didn't really grasp the horrors of their times.

Whenever I hear this again, I will refer to this post. Schindler has come to be seen as an anomaly, unfortunately.

Your course sounds wonderful - hmm, at sojourn in Australia to study.

Hels said...


Thank you. I can't read primary sources in German alas, so I am dependent on secondary sources in English. So far it has not been easy to find evidence of people who acted morally, heroically in immoral times.

Were families and companies very reticent to talk about their war-time activities, even decades after the rescuers stopped facing danger themselves? Did the children and grandchildren not know of their parents rescue activities?

Nicholas V. said...

Now I've always liked Leica and Leitz products, so all the more reason to now! Not only a good businessman but a humanitarian and a wonderful human being. Great to read about this, Hels.

Hels said...


my husband is a professional radiologist and an amateur photogrqapher - he is the one who thinks Leica makes the finest quality products in the world. I don't think I would have known the name Leitz, if it wasn't for him.

Great story, isn't it? And all true!

Richard Cottrell said...

Very interesting. The pink used in Second Empire Homes of the 1870's was a reflection from the colors used in Italy.Richard from My Old Historic House.

Hels said...


many thanks. So much to learn and so little time.

marc aurel said...

Very moving. My godfather bought a Leica for my father in Hong Kong for ten pounds in 1932. I have inherited it. We both used to guess the aperture from the film speed and got many wonderful black and white prints. Sadly, because of digital photography, I never use it anymore. The 90 mm lense was wonderful.

Hels said...


there is something wonderful about grandfathers and fathers spending quality time with their children and grandchildren, and sharing helpful information. Leica was clearly top quality equipment, but more importantly, it was something your family shared.

Theresa H Hall said...

What an uplifting article. I shall go to see this movie once it is released. thank you for telling their courageous story.

Hels said...


sometimes I despair about the human race - economic basketcases in Europe, gun-carrying in America, civil wars in Africa etc. In Australia, the Opposition Party wants to tow all boats crowded with refugees back out to sea and presumably drown the poor sods :(

Then sometimes I find a good story, full of hope for the future!

Hels said...

Just in case anyone has wondered if Leica cameras have kept their value, Country Life (8th Feb 2012) noted a black Leica M3 35mm range-finder camera No.959417 recently fetched £7,404 at auction (USA $12,100).