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The Little-Known Leica Freedom Train

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Leica cameras aided the German war machine in World War II, but the family of Ernst Leitz II acted righteously. They were yet another group of strict Christians who performed humanely when violence threatened to rule the world – as it still does.  

As much as I admire and always wanted Leica and Leitz optics (especially the venerable M-series rangefinders and their outstanding and horribly expensive lenses), there was always that nagging worry about Nazi companies that supported the German onslaught against the world. Why, I wondered, should I, or can I, give money to the surviving war criminals who successfully killed tens of millions of people in the name of Aryan superiority? (Having said this, I now drive a Jetta even though most of my life was spent with Volvos (the Swedes were good guys, after all), and then my beloved Bronco.)

But in the world of photography the Germans have been in the forefront of precision, quality and near-perfection. Leitz, Schneider, Rodenstock, Rollei, Zeiss. They have personified the summit of photography. In a lifetime of considering cameras and pictures, enlargers and loupes, I had to grit my teeth over supporting European savagery just because of their optics. Shamefully, America has seldom made anything to compare and, when the cameras did, they had Schneider or Zeiss Tessar lenses attached.

Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the most visible Leica shooters and great photographers in the last century. There were legions of others, but his is the image of the shooter, with the Leica to his eye, who comes to mind first.

Now there is a report going around and awards given for Ernst Leitz II, who headed the company in the 1930s as the Germans were opting for  killing and war, torture, slave labor and genocide. He managed his company in a manner that has earned him the title, "the photography industry's Schindler." He was recently described as acting as a gentleman with "uncommon grace, generosity and modesty."

The writer on photography, George Gilbert, recently spoke at a convention of the Leica Historical Society of America in Portland, Oregon. The company, he said, launched in 1869, earned a reputation for its "enlightened behavior" toward employees. The Wetzlar-based company provided modern benefits far earlier than most. Leitz gave employees pensions, health coverage and sick leave. Many of its workers were traditionally, for generations, Jewish.

The Leitz family were Christians. They would not have been affected (more than anybody of humane persuasion) by the Nuremberg Laws which set forth the limitations of rights for Jews – ending in the German attempt at the genocide of a large, European population with plans to annihilate all Jews, gypsies, mentally ill, and otherwise non-superior peoples. And no matter what the Iranian President now has to say about this.

Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. Jews who could see the writing on the walls with swastikas began calling Herr Leitz for help in getting out of Germany. In response, he formed what was to become called "The Leica Freedom Train". His company began as quickly as possible to "re-assign" workers, executives, retailers, family members and friends to Leitz branches in France, Britain, Hong Kong and the United States.

Loads of passengers disembarked the great German liner Bremen in New York. They went to the New York offices of Leitz where executives found them jobs in the photographic, technical, and design industries. Some became writers on photography and its processes. Many people, and many families, were spared Germany's mass murder. The train was kept quiet and continued to operate in 1938 and 1939. After 1 September 1939, with the invasion of Poland and the admission that a war was being waged, Germany closed its borders. The train was derailed.

The Leitz' did not totally get away with it. Germany was not in a very forgiving mood in those days. A key employee, Alfred Turk, was jailed. Leitz bought his freedom.

Elsie Kuhn-Leitz, Ernst's daughter, was captured and jailed for helping Jewish women slip into Switzerland. She was released, but Nazi capture and interrogation methods have not earned awards for their delicacy.

The Gestapo was also happy with her when she attempted to help 700-800 Ukrainian women who were put to work as slaves in the Leica plant in the 40s. Ernst was said to be a strict Protestant patriarch. Elsie must have been a feisty woman. After the war she was honored for humanitarian actions. Awards included the Officier d'honneur des Palms Academique from France in 1965 and the Aristide Briand Medal from the European Academy.

It is only recently that these facts have come to light to the general public. Why?

Norman Lipton, a writer and editor, has stated that the Leitz family did not want publicity for its "noble efforts". After the last of the family died, the facts were publicized and a book released, The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train, by Frank Dabba Smith. Smith is a rabbi who now lives in England.

There is a good review of the book by George Auer at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. I learned of the book and the story from, among others, Photo. Net. There is also a children's book, Elsie's War by Frank Dabba Smith, about Elsie Kuhn-Leitz.

I'd love to buy this Leica and a brace of lenses. It would not make me Henri Cartier-Bresson but it would fulfill that old dream of owning an M-series Leica. Except, of course, for the price. But my conscience would be as clear as my wallet was empty.

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  • Clavos

    Nice piece, Howard.

    It’s refreshing to see a BC Politics article celebrating the good side of the human race, especially one set in such a dark period of history.

    Thanks for sharing it with us!


  • Ruvy in Jerusalem

    What Clavos said, Howard…

  • JustOneMan

    Is this an infomercial for the never ending “victims” industry? What do you say Ruuuuuuveeeee?