Leica and the Nazis
You can't help cringing whenever you see people fawning over "Swastika" Leicas.
Some German corporations didn't exactly distinguish themselves during WW2, with many fostering a close association with the Nazi regime, as well as ruthlessly exploiting their slave labourers & employees.
I'm sure many Leica users have wondered: "Where were Leica in all this? How deeply were they involved? Were they Good Blokes, or Creeps?"…
Thanks to the efforts of Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith, George Gilbert and Norman C. Lipton, the good news is that in this particular case, E.Leitz did do the right thing. Not only did they treat their workforce reasonably well, but they also — often at great personal risk — helped many jews (and others) escape the depravity of the Thousand Years Reich.
Articles & Links
Rather than rehash material which is freely available online, the following is a collection links to articles you can download yourself. They all feature extensive detail about Leica's altruism during the 1930s and World War II, and clearly dispel the notion that E.Leitz was just another Bayer AG, BMW, Krupp, Siemens et al.:
- "The Leica Freedom Train - A Journey to Freedom" Youtube Video (3:42 min)
- Frank Dabba Smith: "Ernst Leitz of Wetzlar and Altruism During the Holocaust" (2002). Download brochure, 5400 words (Zip archive, 15K Bytes)
- "New life through a lens" (Feb 2007). Online Financial Times article by Mark Honigsbaum
- "The Leica Freedom Train" online article by George Gilbert
- "Leica Freedom Train" Wiki article
- "The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train" (2002), Book review link.
- L-camera-forum.com: #49629 - Feb 2004
- L-camera-forum.com: #52762 - Mar 2004
There is another book, again written by Rabbi Smith, called "Elsie's War, A Story of Courage in Nazi Germany" (Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2003, ISBN 0-7112-1861-7). It contains an introduction by Henri Cartier-Bresson and can be purchased online from <franceslincoln.com>
Where can you buy "The Leica Freedom Train" book?
Why isn't this better known?
In the early 1990's I was castigated by a Jewish acquaintance for using Leica equipment, since according to him it was "stuck together with the blood of murdered slaves". Yet if Leica did do the right thing during WW2, why the reticence in letting others know? Surely at some stage it would have made sense to mention their altruism and anti-Nazi activities?
Rabbi Smith noted possible reasons for this towards the end of his brochure (see link above):
When Norman C. Lipton approached Ernst Leitz II's youngest son, Gunther (1915-69) with whom he was well acquainted, about his desire to write the story of the 'underground railway out of Germany' for Reader's Digest, he was told 'absolutely not': 
Gunther, who was usually very soft spoken, almost lost his temper. 'Not while I'm alive,' he practically shouted. 'My father did what he did because he felt responsible for his employees and their families and also for our neighbours. He was able to act because the government needed our factory's military output. No one can ever know what other Germans had done for the persecuted within the limits of their ability.'
Gunther Leitz's refusal in 1967 to have the story published during his lifetime could well have been the result of an innate modesty about his family's actions. For him, there was no heroism involved. Helping Jews in the way that was done was what any decent human being would have done, given the opportunity.
2004 movie: "One Camera, One Life"
Believe it or not, a film has been made about this by Mark de Paola. In June 2004 he sent me the following note:
[…] I just learned that there was a discussion about a film we are making about the great courage and benevolence on the part of the Leitz family/company during the years leading up to and during WW2. Actually, the film is currently titled "One Camera, One Life", being produced by "Cinema Forward, Inc". Exec. producers Liz Boeder and Doris Bettencourt, and directed by myself, Mark de Paola.
[…] We have already begun principal photography; we have shot in Germany, Miami, and New York thus far. We have done extensive research worldwide for over a year and a half and have compiled extensive information/verification of the noted events. They are however in a form to make a film; we are not writing books or articles. Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith (London) is perhaps the most knowledgeable on the topic and we are working closely with him in the making of this film. […]
The film doesn't have an IMDB entry, but you can view the film's trailer at the following URL:
After the Flash Movie loads, click on the "Trailers" option, then choose "One Camera, One Life". You'll need either Real Player or Quicktime to view the clip.
Leica camera manufacture during WW2
In May 2005 Lawrence Zeitlin posted a very detailed note about Leica's camera manufacturing activities, during and immediately following World War II. See this discussion at <LUG - v29/msg15270.html>.