There are thousands of noble, honorable, and ethical people who saved the lives of Jews and other targets of the Nazi regime during the Holocaust. The story of Ernst Leitz, of the Leitz company, maker of the famous Leica camera, has come to light only in the past several years, and it is a study in heroism somewhat more limited, but equally praiseworthy, to that of Oskar 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, of course, 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, and friends of family members were “assigned” to Leitz sales offices in France, Britain, Hong Kong and the United States. . .
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.
This heroism came at no small cost to Leitz, his family, and his staff:
(M)embers of the Leitz family and firm suffered for their good works. A top executive, Alfred Turk, was jailed for working to help Jews, and was 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 was eventually freed, but had endured rough treatment in the course of being questioned. She also fell under suspicion when she attempted to improve the living conditions of more than 700 Ukrainian slave laborers, all of them women, who had been assigned to work in the plant during the 1940s.
The family and the company likely survived because they were providing critical optics for the Nazi war-effort.
Why has this story only recently surfaced?
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” come to light. It became the subject of a book, “The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train,” by Frank Dabba Smith.
These are true heroes. The Talmud, the archive of thousands of years of Jewish wisdom and law notes:
Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.
This was told to Oskar Schindler, at least in the movie version of his story, and certainly applies to the Leitz family as well.
My next camera is going to be a Leica.