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GERMAN CAMERA-maker Ernst Leitz II and his daughter Elsie Kühn-Leitz quietly rescued hundreds of Jews by smuggling them out of Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Their efforts came to light after World War II, with even more recent revelations. My thanks to Facebook friend Peter Manso who brought the story to my attention.
Ernst Leitz II inherited his father’s optical company in 1920, several years after its invention of the world’s first practical 35-mm camera. The Leica I (as in Leitz Camera) was introduced to the public at the 1925 Leipzig Spring Fair.
The Leica I was the world’s first to use 35-mm film strips rather than the cumbersome plates of earlier still cameras. It was devised by Oskar Barnack, who headed Leitz company’s camera research. His idea was to adapt the cinema-type film strip to smaller hardware, made possible by the exceptional optics of Leica lens.
Leitz II continued the tradition set by his father as a benevolent employer. (In the 19th century, Ernst Leitz I had instituted pensions, sick leave and health insurance for his employees.) Though the family was Christian, Leitz II recognized the plight of European Jews threatened by the Nazis and Adolph Hitler’s 1933 appointment as Chancellor of Germany.
To counter this, he and his daughter Elsie Kühn-Leitz devised “company reassignments” to safe havens for Jewish employees, retailers, family members and even friends of family members. Some of these reassignments to Britain, the United States and Hong Kong were genuine, with continued employment in Leica branch offices. Other workers were offered stipends in getting established in the new country, aid in finding employment with other companies—and each new arrival was given a Leica camera (a highly marketable commodity if needed).
The Leica Freedom Train, as it is now called, intensified after Kristallnacht of November 9 – 10, 1938, when German and Austrian synagogues and Jewish businesses were burned. Many contemporary images of this period and the Leica Freedom Train are collected in a video at http://goo.gl/R3acmB.
The German ocean liner Bremen delivered groups of Leica-aided refugees to New York City every few weeks, until Germany closed its borders in September 1939.
The Nazi government profited from the Leitz company’s optical equipment (and the hard currency of its international sales). From time to time, however, it clamped down on the Leica ploy. Alfred Turk, a top executive, was jailed until payment of a large bribe. Elsie Kühn-Leitz, Ernst Leitz II’s daughter, was imprisoned for a time by the Gestapo as a result of her efforts in aiding a Jewish woman across the border into neutral Switzerland. A massive ransom gained her release.
Elsie Kühn-Leitz had another close call when she sought to improve living conditions of women brought to the Leica factory as slave labor during the war.
A London-based, California-born rabbi, Frank Dubba Smith, documented many of these activities in The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family—the Leica Freedom Train, published by the American Photographic History Society in 2002. Though in several libraries in the U.S. (the Los Angeles County system among them), the book is not listed at my usual sources, www.abebooks.com or www.amazon.com.
Rabbi Dubba Smith has also written a children’s book about Elsie Kühn-Leitz, Elsie’s War: A Story of Courage in Nazi Germany. See http://goo.gl/FJVADR. It’s available with an Inside Look at www.amazon.com.
Back in 2011, it was said an updated edition of Dubba Smith’s earlier book might be forthcoming. At that time, Elsie’s son, Dr. Knut Kühn-Leitz, spoke to Britain’s Leica Society about more refugees having been identified. In an Amateur Photography article (http://goo.gl/flv5uv), Kühn-Leitz described his family’s modesty in the matter: His grandfather’s help “was defined by a personal sense of responsibility not only toward his employees and their families, but toward many other citizens, regardless of their religion or world view….
“After the war,” noted Kühn-Leitz, “he never said a word about his relief efforts.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014