The Leica Freedom Train


It's no secret that the camera business has been good to Jews, especially in New York City, where many religious Jews own and operate some of the biggest photo stores in the world, like B&H. But did you know that in Europe, during the 1930s, the Leitz family, designer and manufacturer of one of the world's most famous cameras—the Leica—was responsible for helping thousands of Jews escape Nazi Germany?

Sometimes referred to as "the photography industry's Schindler," Ernst Leitz II, a Protestant Christian, began a covert operation as Hitler rose to power whereby he assigned his Jewish employees to offices outside Germany. While most were relocated to New York City, others escaped to France, Britain and even Hong Kong.

At the operation's height between '38 and '39, hundreds of new arrivals found freedom in the United States where Leitz executives helped the newcomers with jobs in the photo industry. Meanwhile, back in Germany, the Leitz family paid the consequences for aiding Jews. Alfred Turk, a top executive, was jailed by the Gestapo. Even more noteworthy: Leitz's own daughter, Elsie Kuhn-Leitz, was thrown in jail after she was caught helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland.

The Leica Freedom Train story was kept quiet all these years as the Leitz family wanted no publicity for its efforts. But now that the last surviving members of the family have passed away, little by little, the story of their heroism is attracting attention and has even been published in a book by a California-born rabbi named Frank Dabba Smith.

While it's always difficult to view images and photographs from the Holocaust, stories like the Leitz's remind us that some did whatever they could to insure other pictures developed—ones that capture the best of humanity rather than the worst.