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The Leica Freedom Train

The Leica Freedom Train

How a German company quietly saved their Jewish employees.


The Leica is the pioneer 35mm camera. It is a German product -- precise, minimalist, and utterly efficient. 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 the company's 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, 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.

Leitz's activities intensified after the Kristallnacht of November 1938, during which synagogues and Jewish shops were burned throughout 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 photographic industry. Each new arrival had around his or her neck the symbol of freedom -- a new Leica.

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.

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 with it?

Leitz's daughter was imprisoned by the Gestapo after she was caught helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland.

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 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. 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" 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. It is also the subject of a film in production, One Camera, One Life. (Click below to view the trailer.)

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June 25, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 16

(16) Phyllis Pearson, August 27, 2013 1:48 AM

The Leica train.

Awesome story, what a brave, honourable family. They will surely hear G-d say. "We'll done thou good and faithful servants". Thanks for bringing this story to us.

(15) Anonymous, December 12, 2011 6:08 PM

Not only at Leica

Nice that this is being published. I have heard similar things were done by Siemens, whether it is true I don't know. There is one sentence which though is inaccurate: "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". Many non-Jewish people were also affected by the Nurnberger Laws, it sufficed if your great grandparent was Jewish. Also, non-Jewish Germans were equally restricted in movement: under any dictatorship you must register and have permits to travel.

(14) Beverly Kurtin, May 1, 2011 5:54 PM

Wonderful News

I have had many jobs in my lifetime. One of them was working for Edwin Land's (co-founder of Polaroid) cousin, selling cameras and photographic accessories. One day a man came into the store and said he was interested in getting a new camera. Yashica had just started to produce high quality twin lens reflex cameras. I took it out and told the customer that it was one of the first high quality cameras that came into the country. He said that it sounded like a Japanese name. I said that it was. He almost broke the camera when he put it down. "Don't you know what the Japs did to us during the war? Do you carry Exacta or Leica?" I was in shock. I asked him if he knew what the Germans did to us during the war. He made his big mistake about that time, he said, "Yeah, but he got rid of a lot of Jews." Okay, I'm a Jew and so was Mr. Land's cousin (and Edwin was also a Jew). I lost my temper and screamed at the bigot and told him to leave the store and leave it NOW. Well, the boss heard me and with the noodnik there he asked me what the problem was and why was I telling a customer to get lost? So I told him what the guy had said. The boss screamed too. He told the guy to get out and don't bother going to the other camera store in town because the owner was also Jewish I wish that I had known about the freedom trains back then. The Leica was a fantastic piece of equipment and the lenses were among the best I'd ever used. Unfortunately, when I was taking pictures of a large bridge being painted, one of the straps snapped off and the camera now resides 200 feet below in the river. I'm convinced that Hashem has a special place for the family of righteous Gentiles. Thanks for telling us about that story, it makes me feel less guilty about using a German made camera. The war had been over for just a few years,

(13) Anonymous, July 21, 2010 3:08 PM

Re: Nuremberg laws

"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." Here author displays the common American misunderstanding of the definition of who is a 'Jew'. Nazis were not defining Jews as those who are practicing (or even was born to) Judaic religion. Many of the Jews, who perished in Holocaust, were Christians. The Nuremberg laws were also called 'Blood' laws, because the 'jewishness' was recognized as a racial trait not a religion of the subject. There were special methods to check if the person was a 'Jew' or not, and how much of 'jewish blood' he or she possessed. Thanks G-d, Nazis did not move far ahead in practical genetics as they had in other natural sciences, or there would be even more victims of their racial purges.

(12) Anonymous, November 9, 2009 9:48 PM

One Camera, One Life

Is there anyway for me to get a copy of this movie for a project? I can't seem to find it anywhere but here.

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