Leica History - The Freedom Train

In this year, celebrating Leica's 100th birthday and its history, there's a piece of it that not everyone may be aware of. In the Germany of racial persecution, many know the story of Oskar Schindler. But less known is the story of Ernst Leitz II and his daughter Elsie Kuehn-Leitz, who saved hundreds from the Nazis - dubbed "the Leica Freedom Train." Over on daringtodo they have a story called "Leica Freedom Train: The Story of Ernst Leitz and Trains of Salvation" (in Italian) that delves deeper.

Translation into English (via Google):

In the Germany of racial persecution, there was only Oskar Schindler to deal with the fate of the Jews. Ernst Leitz II and his daughter Elsie Kuehn-Leitz saved hundreds of people from Nazi persecution. The industrialist was the producer of the legendary Leica camera but this story is little known.

The Leica Freedom Train has been the attempt by Ernst Leitz II and his daughter Elsie Kuehn-Leitz to help hundreds of German Jews to flee Nazi Germany, a few months after coming to power of Adolf Hitler in 1933.

When Hitler became Chancellor, Ernst Leitz II, son of the founder of Optische Werke Ernst Leitz, he began to receive heartbreaking letters and phone calls from his Jewish collaborators who asked for help for themselves and their families.

Ernst Leitz II It was at this point that Leitz, of family is not Jewish and therefore not subject to the Nuremberg Laws, he decided to put in place a secret project, the Leica Freedom Train, to save as many Jews as possible from Nazi persecution. The plan seemed simple enough, but if it was discovered, could lead to dramatic consequences for everyone involved. Leitz helped many Jews to leave the country thanks to a seemingly simple motivation: moving abroad for work. The employees of his company, their families and sometimes even their friends were in fact "assigned" to Leitz sales departments, mainly located in the United States, France, England and Hong Kong. The efforts of Leitz intensified especially after Kristallnacht - The Night of Broken Glass - in November of 1938, during which many Jews were killed, while in Germany their buildings, shops and synagogues were looted and the flames.

In addition to paying all the costs of transfers, Leitz before departure made ​​a gift to each employee of a Leica camera that, in case of need, they could sell for cash. Once in New York, the refugees were welcomed in offices and showroom Leitz on 5th Avenue in Manhattan, where they received help finding a job, a house and everything they need to start their new life. To those who encountered difficulties in finding a job was offered a living allowance. Among all these people, many became designers, repair technicians, salespeople, marketers, and even writers of books on photography.

The Leica Freedom Train traveled around 1938 until the early months of 1939, carrying every week groups of refugees around the world. It was only with the invasion of Poland by the German army September 1, 1939 that the country's borders were officially closed and Leitz had to give up his laudable project.

The whole thing would never have come to light had it not been for the research conducted by a rabbi born in California and lives in England. Written by Frank Dabba Smith and published in 2002 by the American Photographic Historical Society, "The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train" describes in detail the efforts of the Leitz family to combat one of the greatest tragedies of history. When the Anti-Defamation League awarded him posthumously Ernst Leitz II with Courage to Care Award in 2007, the ADL director Abraham Foxman said: "At the risk considerably, and in defiance of Nazi policy, Ernst Leitz courageous things to steal from danger his Jewish employees and others. If only there had been more Oskar Schindler, the more Ernst Leitz, fewer Jews would have died. "

Although there is no way to know precisely how many people Ernst Leitz managed to save, you know the risks they ran for himself and for his family.

The story of this new Schindler has emerged only a few years ago, the German industrialist never spoke of his commitment, even with family members or when he was accused of collaborating. He was the son of Leitz, Günther, to break the silence by stating in an interview: "My father did what he did because he felt responsible for his workers, their families and our neighbors in Wetzlar."

Leica Freedom Train


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