Say Cheese: The Leica Freedom Train

The rise of the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s caused untold horrors and hardships throughout Germany and afterwards, throughout Europe. They say that we should never forget our history lest we be doomed to repeat it. And it is all too easy to remember all the bad things that happened under Nazism from 1933 to 1945. But what of all the good things? How many of those could you name?

Do you, for example, know of the story of the Leica Freedom Train? It was one of the most famous anti-Nazi efforts in pre-war Nazi Germany which is probably largely forgotten today. This is the story…

Germany, 1933

The Reichstag Building in Berlin catches fire, the result of an arson-attack. Adolf Hitler takes the opportunity of public panic and confusion to seize the reins of power and rise up as the dictator of the new Third Reich of Nazi Germany. In the space of eleven years, the Nazi Party grew from insignificance to being the most powerful force to be reckoned with, within the boundaries of Germany.

With his authority secure and his power absolute, Hitler was able at last, to carry out widespread and public persecution of Germany’s Jewish population. Starting in 1935, the ‘Nuremberg Laws’, increasingly restricted Jewish freedoms and antisemitism swept across Germany. Fearful for their lives, German Jews packed their bags and fled to England, America, Australia and China to escape the rising tyranny. But international immigration-quotas and Nazi Germany’s own highly restrictive travel-regulations made escape for Jews very tricky. Each year, only a few thousand could hope to board ships to the Far East, or across the Channel, or to the New World. Increasingly ostricised from their communities, Jews were desperate to escape the growing persecution before everything reached its inevitable and unimagined climax when the Second World War started in 1939.

Enter…this man:

His name is Ernst Leitz. He ran the famous German manufactury of film-cameras known as Ernst Leitz GmbH, which today, is known as Leica. The efforts of Herr Leitz and his daughter, Elsie Keuhn-Leitz, are one of the forgotten stories of the Holocaust.

As antisemitism in Germany increased month after month after the rise of the Nazi Party, Germany’s Jews became more and more nervous. Fearing for their lives, they tried to flee this oppression, only to find the way barred, either by the German government, or by foreign powers who did not grasp the urgency of the situation in pre-war Germany. In desperation, Jewish employees of the Leica Camera Company approached the Big Cheese himself. Ernst Leitz. As the head of a prominent German aryan company, Leitz was a wealthy, powerful man, well above the suspicions of the Nazis, and as a Christian, was unaffected by the restrictions placed on German Jews.

Touched by their plight and moved by their panic, Leitz and his family set into motion what became known as the ‘Lecia Freedom Train’.

What Was the Leica Freedom Train?

Okay, first thing’s first. Just like the ‘Underground Railroad’ in the United States, the Lecia Freedom Train is not actually a locomotive. I apologise to everyone who’s read this far with mental images of smoke-belching steam-trains chugging out of stations to freedom and liberation in a far-off land. That’s not what this is.

The Lecia Freedom Train was a concerted effort by Ernst Leitz and his daughter to rescue and relocate as many Jews as was possible, before the German border slammed shut permanently (which it did with the start of the Second World War). Leitz wanted to try and get as many Jews out of Germany as fast as possible and as far away as possible. And again, being a prominent businessman, he had the resources to do so. Ernst Leitz GmbH was a big company. It had branches in London, New York City and Paris. It was here that Leitz would relocate his Jews.

Like Oskar Schindler, Leitz used his power, money, status and influence to do good deeds in a time of darkness, but unlike Schindler, Leitz’s story is nowhere near as famous.

To help his Jewish workers, Leitz conveniently made them “Lecia Company representatives”. Their work-profiles were changed and suddenly, all his Jews, Leitz told the German government, had to leave the country, because they had been ‘assigned’ as ‘sales representatives’ of his foreign offices in London, New York, Paris and even as far away as Hong Kong, where those filthy, grubby Nazis couldn’t get their hands on them.

But Leitz went one step further. He didn’t just move his Jewish employees out of Germany, he moved almost everyone else. If Leitz had a Jewish employee named Jacob, he would give him the necessary travel-permits and documentation to go and live in New York City. But if Jacob had a wife and three kids, suddenly, his papers were modified to say that he would be there for ‘long-term work’ and that his family HAD to go with him. But perhaps Jacob had some close friends who also happened to be Jewish? No problem. His friends suddenly changed jobs. Instead of being schoolteachers or librarians or authors, they suddenly worked for the Leitz Company. And all their papers and profiles and employment-histories were forged and written up. They too, were given employment and travel-papers by the Leitz family for them to go to London or Hong Kong as salespeople for this prominent, aryan, Made-In-Germany photographic-equipment company. As far as the Nazis were concerned, Leitz was just doing regular business. As far as the Jews were concerned, the Leitz Company was a saviour.

Boarding the ‘Lecia Freedom Train’

So how did this all work? Well, once all the papers, passports, Visas, permits, forms, applications and other synonyms for bureaucratic boodle had been worked out, the Jewish workers packed their bags, hugged their wives, gathered their kids from school and hopped on the first train going to the German coastline (yes, check a map. Germany has a coastline).

Once the Leitz Jews had reached the shipping-offices, they would purchase liner-tickets for London or New York or Hong Kong. Or if they weren’t going overseas, they would take the train to Paris in France. Either way, once the Jews had reached their destinations, the next stage of the plan went into action. They swarmed onto the ships that would eventually take them to freedom.

Once in New York or London or Paris or Hong Kong, the Jews were supported by the Lecia Company’s branches in those cities. The Jews who disembarked from the liners in Southampton or New York or in Hong Kong Harbour immediately sought out the Leitz Company headquarters in that particular city where company executives would help them settle down. They’d help them find jobs and homes in these new, probably unfamiliar countries. Money-troubles were eased by the payments of stipends until each family or person managed to settle in. Along with all the papers and passports and money and personal effects, the Jews on the Lecia Freedom Train also had something else with them. Just in case they couldn’t get any money for whatever reason (and during the 1930s, there were a lot of reasons!), every Lecia ’employee’ left Germany with, not only his forged papers and a blessing and a word of good luck from Mr. Leitz, but also…a brand new Lecia camera. Just in case the Nazis wouldn’t allow Jews to own cameras, they were called “product-samples” by the Leitz Company, designed to be display-models of this fantastic, aryan company’s latest inventions. In fact, the cameras served as an asset. If the Jewish employee in his reassigned country (where-ever that was), was unable to find work or get financial support from the Leitz Company while abroad, he would at least, be able to sell a flashy, brand-new, top-quality, German-made camera to get at least some cash to help him survive.

At first, not many Jews took advantage of the open gates that the Leitz Company provided for them. Most people thought that the antisemitic measures were nothing more than the Nazis showing off their might, now that they’d come to power. Give it a few months, a couple of years…It would all be over and life would go back to normal. Nothing to worry about.

But then in November, 1938, Kristallnacht happened. Kristallnacht is translated from German into English as the Night of Broken Glass. Jewish shops had their front windows smashed and their interiors looted and torched. They had antisemitic graffitti painted on their walls and doors. Synagogues all over Germany were torched and burnt to the ground. Realising at last that Germany was no longer safe for them, Jews packed their bags and ran for the Lecia Freedom Train. Between November, 1938 and the end of August, 1939, hundreds of Jews fled Germany through the services provided by the Leitz Family. Every couple of weeks, ships docked in New York Harbor. And with every ship from Germany came more and more Jews who had fled from the Nazis with the aid of Ernst Leitz and his daughter, Elise. On the 1st of September, 1939, the Germans attacked Poland and the German borders were closed to all travel, but in those few brief years, the Leitz family managed to save hundreds of lives.

The Leitz Family During the War

Even after the start of the Second World War and the closing of the border, the Leitz family continued to help Jews by smuggling them over the border or by mirroring the example set by Oskar Schindler and employing Jews in their optical-equipment factories to protect them from the ghettos and the death-camps, all at immense risk to their own safety. Leitz. Co. executive Alfred Turk was arrested for helping Jews and thrown in jail. He was released early because the Leitzes forked up a fat bribe to get him out of jail. Elsie Leitz, Ernst’s daughter, was arrested for helping Jews escape over the German border. She refused to crack under questioning and was later released, but the Nazis kept a close eye on the Leitz family after that. They started keeping an even closer eye on them when they noticed the Leitzs being nice to the Jewish slave-labourers who were forced to work in their factories. Roughly 800 Jewish women were employed by the Leitzes to protect them from harm.

The Leitz Family’s Efforts

If the Leitz Family did all this…how come nobody knows about it? If they rescued so many hundreds, thousands of people, why is it almost nobody knows about them today? Even though they ran one of the most famous optics companies in the entire world?

The reason? Because the Leitz family didn’t WANT anyone to know. It was only after the death of the last member of the Leitz family that permission was given to publicise the efforts of the Leitz Freedom Train, something that the Leitzes had wanted to keep secret for as long as possible…Just in case.