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.”
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
Each new arrival had around his or her neck the symbol of freedom ““ a
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
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 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
(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
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 .