How many times has a 35 mm camera been used to immortalize a family gathering?
The numbers would probably be about as high as the Federal Deficit.
While using a 35mm camera at a birth, wedding or graduation, did the camera save a life?
The story of Leica Camera and the lives the company had saved is finally being told.
The name Leica is made by taking the first three letters of the last name of the founder, Ernst Leitz and combining it with the first two letters in the word, camera. The company was founded in Wetzlar Germany by Ernst Leitz the first.
The Leica Company originally created the compact 35 mm camera for use in landscape photography, especially mountain landscapes. The Leica was the first practical camera that used 35 mm film.
The Leica Company founded in 1869, wrote the book on employee benefits and how to treat company employees. Early on, the Leica Company were pioneers of pensions, sick leave and health insurance. The reason for such benign behavior is that Mr. Leitz depended on generations of skilled workers to run his business. Many of the workers were Jews.
Ernst Leitz II took over in 1920, being the head of the company his father had begun until 1956. When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, Leitz II began receiving frantic calls from Jewish associates for help in getting them and their families out of Germany. As Christians, the Leitz were not restricted by the Nuremberg Laws, created to restrict Jews in their professional and business activities.
To assist those asking for help, Leitz II quietly established what is known to Holocaust historians as the “Leitz Freedom Train.” This was the process of assigning colleagues, friends, family of friends etc. with a way to exit Germany safely. These people were sent to France, Britain, Hong Kong and the United States as “employees” under the ruse of work transfer to the Leica facilities in foreign lands.
“Employees” sent to the United States went to Leica’s Manhattan office. They were given a Leica camera, a living stipend and assistance in finding a job.
The “Freedom Train” was in constant operation between the years of 1938 and early 1939. They delivered refugees into New York every few weeks until the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 when Germany closed its borders.
Though successfully transferring many to safety, family members and staff were not excluded from retaliation by the German government. A top executive, Alfred Turk, was imprisoned for helping Jews, only to be released upon the payment of a very large bribe.
Leitz’s daughter, Elsie, was imprisoned by the Gestapo for helping Jewish women escape at the border. She was eventually released, but not after receiving rough treatment. She was treated with suspicion while attempting to improve the living condition of 700 to 800 Ukrainian women assigned as slave labor to the camera factory.
The reason that this story has not gained notoriety over the decades is that the family sought no praise for their actions, and wished to remain anonymous for their altruism.
Since the last family member has passed, a book detailing the story of the Leitz family and their contribution has been written by a California born Rabbi named Frank Dappa Smith.
The name of the book is The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train.