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March 1: The Leica Freedom Train

March 1, 2017

Ernst Leitz II, a gentile who was the chief officer of the optics company that manufactured the Leica camera, was born on this date in 1871. Leitz, who took over the company in 1920, became a member of the Nazi Party to protect his company (“I was not only a passive member but resisted actively against the Nazi tyranny as far as my means allowed,” he later said). When the Nazis took power, he immediately began hiring young Jewish apprentices and trained them to work in New York and other destinations. They were provided with transportation, paid a stipend until they could find work (in France, Great Britain, Hong Kong and the U.S.), and given a coveted Leica camera, which could be sold if necessary. The “Leica Freedom Train” was at its height in 1938 and early 1939, and saved several score Jews until Germany invaded Poland on September 1 and tightened up its border security. Leitz’s daughter, Elsie Kuehn-Leitz, was his “partner in crime” and was imprisoned by the Gestapo for helping refugees escape from Germany. Notwithstanding this history, Holocaust survivors in 1988 filed a legal suit against Leica for employing slave labor, and the company did pay into a reparations fund. In 2007, Leitz was posthumously awarded the Anti-Defamation League’s Courage to Care Award.

“[W]hile leftist photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa were using Leicas to capture documentary-style images, the Nazis were using them for more sinister purposes. In August 1937, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, instructed news photographers that the ‘use and promotion of small modern cameras constitute[s] a duty inherent to their mission.’ Two years later, he dispatched propaganda squads equipped with Leicas to the Warsaw ghetto to record the ‘degenerate’ habits of the city’s Jews.” --Mark Honigsbaum, Financial Times