I recently became aware of “The Leica Freedom Train” that saved hundreds of Jewish lives before WWII. It was a rescue effort in which Jews were smuggled out of Nazi Germany before the Holocaust by Ernst Leitz II of the Leica Camera company, and his daughter Elsie Kuehn-Leitz. It is a story that deserves to be told and retold not only for the sake of history and what we Jews owe to the Leitz family that once acted in our people’s defense, but as an argument for what we Jews owe to others who are similarly under attack and fleeing for their lives such as Ukrainians living and suffering under this cruel attack by Putin’s Russia.
There is a current disturbing debate in Israel about who in this crisis ought to be welcomed into Israel – Ukrainian Jews only or all Ukrainians seeking refuge. Since many Ukrainians have relatives in Israel who are not Jewish, one has to wonder why some Israeli Members of Knesset are refusing to permit these refugees to come into Israel as well as other refugees with no direct connection to Israelis.
I would hope that this distinction between Ukrainian Jewish refugees and Ukrainian non-Jewish refugees would be put aside during this conflict and that ALL Ukrainian refugees who wish to enter Israel will be allowed to do so, just as I would hope the United States will welcome Ukrainians to our country as a refuge. Currently, according to the following article in The New Republic, Ukrainians are being welcomed into European countries and not yet the United States. See the status of this effort here – https://newrepublic.com/article/165670/ukraine-refugee-resettlement-us-immigration
We Jews understand only too well what it means to be denied entry into pre-statehood Palestine by the British during and after World War II and during the Shoah into the United States. That anyone, Israeli or American, would deny a pursued people refuge is counter to Jewish and American values. Should the United States be asked to admit Ukrainians we ought to do so with no questions asked.
The following was written by Leica News – see link at end.
“The Leica is the pioneer 35mm camera. It is a German product – precise, minimalist, and utterly efficient.
Behind its worldwide acceptance as a creative tool was a family-owned, socially oriented firm that, during the Nazi era, acted with uncommon grace, generosity and modesty. E. Leitz Inc., designer and manufacturer of Germany’s most famous photographic product, saved its Jews.
And Ernst Leitz II, the steely-eyed Protestant patriarch who headed the closely held firm as the Holocaust loomed across Europe , acted in such a way as to earn the title, “the photography industry’s Schindler.”
As soon as Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, Ernst Leitz II began receiving frantic calls from Jewish associates, asking for his help in getting them and their families out of the country. As Christians, Leitz and his family were immune to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg laws, which restricted the movement of Jews and limited their professional activities.
To help his Jewish workers and colleagues, Leitz quietly established what has become known among historians of the Holocaust as “the Leica Freedom Train,” a covert means of allowing Jews to leave Germany in the guise of Leitz employees being assigned overseas. Employees, retailers, family members, even friends of family members were “assigned” to Leitz sales offices in France, Britain, Hong Kong and the United States, Leitz’s activities intensified after the Kristallnacht of November 1938, during which synagogues and Jewish shops were burned across Germany.
Before long, German “employees” were disembarking from the ocean liner Bremen at a New York pier and making their way to the Manhattan office of Leitz Inc., where executives quickly found them jobs in the photographic industry.
Each new arrival had around his or her neck the symbol of freedom – a new Leica camera. The refugees were paid a stipend until they could find work. Out of this migration came designers, repair technicians, salespeople, marketers and writers for the photographic press.
Keeping the story quiet The “Leica Freedom Train” was at its height in 1938 and early 1939, delivering groups of refugees to New York every few weeks. Then, with the invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Germany closed its borders.
By that time, hundreds of endangered Jews had escaped to America, thanks to the Leitzes’ efforts. How did Ernst Leitz II and his staff get away with it?
Leitz, Inc. was an internationally recognized brand that reflected credit on the newly resurgent Reich. The company produced cameras, range-finders and other optical systems for the German military. Also, the Nazi government desperately needed hard currency from abroad, and Leitz’s single biggest market for optical goods was the United States.
Even so, 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 the payment of a large bribe.
Leitz’s daughter, Elsie Kuhn-Leitz, was imprisoned by the Gestapo after she was caught at the border, helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland . She eventually was freed but endured rough treatment in the course of questioning. She also fell under suspicion when she attempted to improve the living conditions of 700 to 800 Ukrainian slave laborers, all of them women, who had been assigned to work in the plant during the 1940s.
(After the war, Kuhn-Leitz received numerous honors for her humanitarian efforts, among them the Officier d’honneur des Palms Academic from France in 1965 and the Aristide Briand Medal from the European Academy in the 1970s.)
Why has no one told this story until now? According to the late Norman Lipton, a freelance writer and editor, the Leitz family wanted no publicity for its heroic efforts. Only after the last member of the Leitz family was dead did the “Leica Freedom Train” finally come to light.
It is now the subject of a book, “The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train,” by Frank Dabba Smith, a California-born Rabbi currently living in England.
Thank you for reading the above, and if you feel inclined as I did to pass it along to others, please do so. It only takes a few minutes.
Memories of the righteous should live on.”
See Wikipedia entry on the Leitz family and the Freedom Train as well as the record of this humanitarian effort – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leica_Freedom_Train