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The Leica Freedom Train


This is a photo of a camera but not just any camera. It’s one that is very special to me. Not just because it’s gorgeous and takes beautiful photos. Not just because Leica was the pioneer in 35mm photography, but much more than that. This camera saved lives, thousands of them! This camera is a symbol of freedom from tyranny!

Let’s go back in time to 1933. Adolph Hitler has been named chancellor of Germany and Ernst Leitz headed a German company, Leitz Inc, that was an internationally recognized brand that reflected credit on Germany. The company produced very high quality cameras, range-finders and other optical systems used by so many around the world, including the German military. In addition, the cash hungry Nazi government desperately needed income from abroad and Leitz’s single biggest market for their optical equipment was the cash rich United States. Leitz was a powerful man, and Leitz Inc (Leica) was a company that was essential to the German economy and military.

As Hitler ramped up his reign of terror, Leitz began to receive calls for help from Jewish employees and associates. They were asking Leitz to help get them, and their families, out of Hitlers reach.  Leitz despised the Nazi’s and feared what was happening to his country. He knew he had to help, but how? Leitz soon established a system to covertly get Jews out of Germany under the pretence of being Leica employees that were being assigned to Leitz offices in France, Britain, Hong Kong, Canada and the United States.

To add credibility to their story, each employee was given a Leica III much like the one in the photo above. These cameras were considered to be the best in the world and as such they were very expensive! Anyone carrying one had to either be very wealthy, or an official representative of Leica. These families had to leave everything behind, so they left Germany with only what could fit in a suitcase. Leitz directed that once relocated, they could sell the camera to provide them with financial resources to rebuild their lives in their new home. In addition they were paid a stipend by Leica until they became established and could support themselves. Many continued to actually work for Leica in their new country, working as repair technicians, sales representatives and management.

This rescue effort wasn’t without cost. 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 Leitz paid a substantial bribe. Leitz’s daughter Elsie, was imprisoned by the Gestapo after she was caught at the border, helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland . She eventually was freed but endured torture in the course of questioning. She also fell under suspicion when she attempted to improve the living conditions of 700 to 800 Ukrainian slave labourers during the 1940s.

The story of the Leica Freedom Train was kept quiet as the Leitz family wanted no reward or acknowledgement. Leitz felt they simply did what was necessary and that so many sacrificed so much more.

Every time I use my Leica III, I think of the other photographers that have used this camera over the many decades. Who were they? What were their stories? I’m only one photographer in a long chain and one day it will move to its next caretaker.

Ref: “The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train,” by Frank Dabba Smith, a Rabbi residing in the UK.

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