Leica: A Snapshot from History


The manufacturer of the Leica camera, the Protestant patriarch, Ernst Leitz II, began receiving frantic calls from Jewish associates as soon as Adolf Hitler came into power in 1933.

In response, he quietly established what has become known as  ”Leica Freedom Train.”  Along with actual employees, Jewish camera retailers, vendors, their friends, and families were “assigned” to Leitz sales offices overseas. By 1939, hundreds of these refugees arrived in New York.

These Leitz  “employees,” were each given around his or her neck the symbol of freedom—a new Leica camera. Leitz executives in Manhattan either quickly found them jobs in the photographic industry or paid them a stipend until they could find work.

Leitz was a prominent international company producing cameras, and optical systems and reflected well for the Reich, so they were never suspect. Even so, Leitz’s own daughter, Elsie Kuhn-Leitz, was imprisoned by the Gestapo after she was caught at the border, helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland.

The humanitarian acts of Ernest Leitz come to light thanks to the detective work of a London-based rabbi, Frank Dabba Smith. Smith, a Leica enthusiast, reconstructed the stories of refugees through photographs, documents, and letters of thanks from survivors.

The Leitz family never wanted publicity for its heroic efforts. Behind its worldwide acceptance as a producer of a top product, this family-owned firm acted with uncommon courage, grace, and generosity during the very worst of times.

Frank Dabba Smith (2006). The greatest invention of the Leitz family: The Leica freedom train. American Photographic Historical Society, 1150 Avenue of the Americas, new York, NY 10036.

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