Have you ever owned a Leica?

Discussion in 'Leica and Rangefinders' started by richard_dulkin, Jan 5, 2015.

  1. LEICA AND THE JEWS The Leica is the pioneer of the 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 its Jewish associates. 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 photographic industry. Each new arrival had around his or her neck the symbol of freedom - a new Leica camera. 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 with it? Leitz, Inc. was an internationally recognized brand that reflected credit on the newly resurgent Reich. The company produced cameras, 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 the 1940s. (After the war, Kuhn-Leitz received numerous honors for her humanitarian efforts, among them the Officer 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 light. 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 . Thank you for reading the above, and if you feel inclined as I did to pass it along to others, please do so. It only takes a few minutes. Memories of the righteous should live on.​
     
  2. Thank you Richard! I had no idea. My great-grandparents perished in the Holocaust several years before I was born, so this history is particularly important to me. But I hope it's important to everyone.
     
  3. This has in fact been known for quite a few years but obviously is very much to the credit of Ernst Leitz II.
     
  4. I didn't know, thanks for posting.
    I have sometimes felt a little disturbed when using German cameras from this era because they were used by the Nazis for publicity pictures, particularly the Leica. This rather puts that in perspective.
     
  5. Dabba Smith also wrote a more detailed story of what happened to Elsie Kuhn-Leitz, when she tried to help a Jewish woman get across the border to Switzerland. The Gestapo arrested her in front of her young children, and incarcerated her. "Harsh interrogation" methods were used on her. Finally a large bribe was paid in order to get her out of the hands of the Gestapo. The book is called "Elsie's War". Within the book are pictures of Elsie and her family, and the harrowing prison - even her prison cell in solitary confinement.
    I had a copy. A Jewish colleage saw it on my desk, and read it. His grandparents had been in the concentration camps. I gave him the book with my compliments, as it already meant far, far more to him.
     
  6. A Jewish colleague of mine visited Berlin last year and learnt of this and told me of it. I was pleased to learn of it, and
    tucked my Leica close in to my hip, never more proud to carry one.
     
  7. There are good guys out there and the really good ones, like the Leitz family, keep it quiet.
     
  8. He was a great human being.
     
  9. There were indeed some good Germans, but it was very hard to be good in a society and culture rotten to the core - luckily most have us have not been put to the test.
     
  10. In 1934 my Dad bought a used Leica Standard when he first went to work for Eastman Kodak and I have a Leica "selfie" of him using the camera. I am fortunate to have inherited his Leicas. He was well aware of the pre WWII Jewish refugee problem as EK had connections with both Zeiss and Leitz and a trickle of refugees came to Rochester. Our neighbors and family friends in Rochester were very lucky to get to the US through Italy in the spring of 1939. Dr. Franz Urbach was a research physical chemist in Vienna who had developed a phosphor that reacted to infrared light. The University of Rochester's Optics Department originated by Dr. Rudolf Kingslake and headed during the war by Dr. Brian O'Brien were trying to develop a viewing scope and camera system that could see through camoflage and detect hot metal underneath. The U of R project team knew of Urbach's research but had no idea of what had happened to him and needed his work. By pure good fortune, he had entered the US and eventually been placed as a lab assistant in the U of R physics department and the department head mentioned to one of O'Brien's staff that they had a research physical chemist named Urbach working as a lab assistant but didn't know what to do with him. After determining he was the same Urbach for whom they were looking, he was immediately hired to work on the project that resulted in the Metascope, an infrared optical system using Urbach developed infrared sensors. See online biography of Dr. Brian O'Brien.
    It turns out that a number of refugee Jewish academics and optical workers ended up at the U of R, Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, Graflex and Wollensak through efforts to place these individuals in meaningful positions. Post war, Dr. Urbach was hired by Kodak and worked at EK research until his retirement in the late 60's. See references to his 1953 Urbach Rule which remains important to the development of semi-conductor materials.
    I've read and own both of the books mentioned and have mentioned them to Dr. Urbach's daughter who was not aware of either the Leitz effort or her father's contributions.
    Like others, I greatly value the background of the Leitz family and proudly use my Dad's Leicas (and mine) to this day. Hopefully my grandchildren will come to value them as I do.
     
  11. Wow Richard thanks, that touched my heart...
     
  12. Thanks Richard, for the recognition of an honorable family. I had seen some details of the Leitz actions to help Jewish employees and others in pre-war Germany, possibly in the accounts of Leitz history when Dr. Walter Mandler died about a decade ago. As key optical designer for Leica at Leitz Canada in the 70s and 80s, he had close connections with the parent German facility and Leitz family members. A story which merits to be better known amongst photographers.
     
  13. Thanks, Richard! That is a comfort to know that Leitz saved lives in the Holocaust, when all around them were appeasing the Nazis because they didn't want to "make trouble." Although I'm a Christian, my son has converted to Judaism, and so this means a lot to me!
     
  14. There are good people and there not so good people. This applies to people from any country.
     
  15. I don't own a Leica, but as long as I can remember back in the 60s when I knew of the Leica camera, I always thought that the word Leica, and Love, were synominous together. I think this perception is derived by the very fact of the camera's build quality, its simplicity, and its purposeful intent for straight away Photography brings this to mind.
     
  16. My family is German-speaking but isn't, and wasn't Jewish. I remember hearing these stories from older relatives back in the 1960s. Many people got out of Germany as "Leica representatives." By the late 1930s, it was almost impossible for anyone to emigrate.
     

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