How a German Camera Company Saved Hundreds From the Holocaust
This year is the 75th anniversary of the Leica Freedom Train -- an impressive effort by the Leitz optics company to ship hundreds of Jewish families out of Nazi Germany. Upon safe arrival, the refugees would check in with the local Leitz office where they would receive a free Leica camera and a stipend until they found work. Many used the camera to make income.
Ernst Leitz II, the son of company's founder, began hearing concerns from Jewish employees as early as 1933. He began assigning Jewish employees to oversees offices to get them out of Germany.
He stepped up his efforts in 1938 and 1939 successfully relocating hundreds of Jewish employees at all levels of the company and as many of their friends and relatives as he could help. They were sent to New York, France, Britain and Hong Kong.
After Germany invaded Poland Sept. 1, 1939, the government sealed the borders and would not allow any m ore transfers.
A top executive was jailed for his work in 1939. The owner's daughter, Elsi Kuhn-Leitz was jailed by the Gestapo temporarily, and received further persecution for helping Jewish women escape to Switzerland and female Ukrainian slave laborers working for her company.
Prior to World War II the company was well known for treating its employees well -- enjoying loyalty from generations of skilled Jewish workers. Just helping the people escape was a marvelous acts, but the refugees were doubly grateful for the help the Leitz company gave them to land on their feet in their new homes.
The Leitz company made optics for the German military during the war, protecting them somewhat from punishment for their actions. The full extent of what transpired was kept secret by the Leitz family until Ernst's death in the 1950s. The family and Elsie have since received numerous accolades.
The Leica Camera company is still around today, but the Ernst Leitz parent company has been subdivided into separate firms that do geosystems and microsystems among other things.