Leica Freedom Train: Ernst Leitz II

Bold plan saved 300 lives

German businessman Ernst Leitz II, owner of the Leica camera company, saved hundreds of Jews from the Nazis by “transferring” them to Leica offices around the world. Ernst inherited the Leica camera company from his father in 1920. It was founded as Leitz Camera in 1869 and later took on the name Leica: Lei for Leitz + ca for camera. From the beginning the company stood out for the compassionate way they treated their employees, many of whom were Jewish. Leica provided health insurance, sick leave and retirement pensions.

After Hitler became Chancellor in 1933, the Nuremberg laws were enacted, depriving German Jews of the rights of citizenship. They were banned from schools professions, and lost many of their most basic freedoms. Ernst Leitz began receiving desperate calls from his Jewish employees, begging him to help them escape.

Leitz hatched a brilliant plan. He began “transferring” his Jewish employees, along with their extended families, to Leica sales offices in France, Britain, Hong Kong and the United States. After Kristallnacht, when hundreds of Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed throughout Germany, Leitz’ rescue efforts kicked into high gear. At this point, all of the refugees were being sent to America by ocean liner. Once they arrived in New York they were instructed to go to Leica’s office in Manhattan, where they received a Leica camera and a weekly stipend until they were employed. The Jewish refugees went on to careers in photography, camera repair, sales and marketing.

To save Jews, Ernst Leitz risked the company he and his father had lovingly built over 70 year. Indeed, he risked his entire life.

The Leica Freedom Train operated until September 1, 1939, when Germany closed its borders. The Nazis suspected that the Leica company had been illegally helping Jews escape, but they were unable to pin anything on Ernst Leitz, and instead arrested his top executive, Alfred Turk, who was imprisoned until his boss paid a huge bribe for his safe release.

Even after the borders were closed, Leitz’s daughter Elsie Kuehn-Leitz continued helping Jews escape from Germany. Elsie was captured by the Gestapo while smuggling Jewish women into Switzerland, and thrown into prison, where she endured harsh interrogation and frequent beatings before being released in the early 1940’s. By that point, the Nazis had forced the Leica plant to hire 800 Ukrainian women as slave laborers. Elsie spent the rest of the war advocating for these women and working to ensure they had acceptable working and living conditions, and were treated humanely.

Later to be known as the “Leica Freedom Train”, Ernst Leitz’ bold plan saved the lives of 200-300 Jews.

A rare light in a sea of darkness, the Leitz family never wanted publicity for their heroism. The story of the Leica Freedom Train only came out after the last immediate Ernst Leitz family member was dead.

For their courage and sacrifice, we honor Ernst Leitz and his daughter Elsie as this week’s Thursday Heroes.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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