Tuesday, November 7, 2017


Many are familiar with the development of the Leica by Oscar Barnack which started in 1913 with the original prototype, the Ur-Leica.  Further development was unfortunately interrupted by WWI, but after several improvements the decision was made by Ernst Leitz II to build the camera and production started in 1924.  The camera was officially introduced at the Leipzig spring fair in 1925.

It was not an easy decision to build the camera.  At the time, Leitz was primarily a microscope manufacturer and branching out into the manufacture of cameras was seen by many as taking too much of a risk.  This was even more emphasized due to the fact that the Leica presented a huge departure from what was generally considered to be professional cameras.  Many thought that such a small camera would be incapable of competing with the larger format professional cameras of the day.

Ur-Leica from 1913                                      Leica I from 1925

But it was not only the farsightedness of Ernst Leitz II that led to the production of the Leica, it was also deeply rooted in the tradition of the company and the Leitz family to offer the best possible working conditions for their workforce.

Already under Ernst Leitz I the company began to provide sick leave and health insurance, something quite uncommon in those days.  It was his opinion that he owed this to his workers which were directly and indirectly the base of his family’s good fortunes.

Ernsdt Leitz I

This relationship with the Leitz workforce was carried on by his son, Ernst Leitz II.  In 1923 hyperinflation became a huge problem in Germany.  Many companies began laying off people because business in general dropped to very low levels.  This became a problem at Leitz as well.  But Ernst Leitz II steadfastly resisted any layoffs.  He felt that he owed his workers a continued means to make a living.  He thought that the manufacture of the Leica presented the means to be able to continue to keep his workforce.

Ernst Leitz II

It is this deep sense of responsibility that a few years later led to what is now often referred to as the Leitz Freedom Train, a part of the Leitz/Leica history that is relatively unknown.  It was under the Nazi regime in Germany that Ernst Leitz II began to hire a large number of Jewish people under the guise of needing their work skills.  He then sent them to various Leitz sales offices throughout the world with the argument that their skills were needed there.  He did this with great risk to himself and his family, but the result was that the rescue effort of the Leica Freedom Train resulted in hundreds of Jews to be smuggled out of Nazi Germany by Ernst Leitz II and his daughter Elsie Kühn-Leitz before the Holocaust.

Dr. Elsie Kühn-Leitz was imprisoned by the Gestapo after she was caught at the border, helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland.  She was eventually released but had to undergo considerably rough treatment while being interrogated.  She also was questioned after she attempted to improve the living conditions of 700 to 800 Ukrainian slave laborers, all of them women, who were assigned to work in the plant during the 1940s.

Dr. Elsie Kühn-Leitz

The Leitz family never sought any publicity for these efforts with the result that the circumstances of the Leica Freedom Train did not come to light until recently.

Immediately after the end of the war, Dr. Elsie Kühn-Leitz continued her public service by promoting education and culture as the Wetzlar city councilor for Education and Culture among other things.  In 1945 she was co-founder of the Wetzlar cultural community, of which she was chairman for many years.  In the culture they saw a way to bring normalcy in the post-war life.

Wetzlar named a street after Dr. Elsie Kühn Leitz in her honor

In 1954, following a request from Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s first chancellor after WWII, she began her decades of commitment to the Franco-German friendship. This included the establishment of the Franco-German Society in Wetzlar, whose President she was. She also initiated for Wetzlar to become a sister city with Avignon in 1960. Both Avignon and Wetzlar thanked her with an honorary citizenship.  With remarkable assertiveness, she managed to overcome prejudices and made a significant contribution to international understanding. This commitment has been recognized with the highest honors that could be given by the town of Wetzlar, as well as the Federal Republic of Germany.

For other articles on this blog scroll down in the column to the right to BLOG ARCHIVE

To comment or to read comments please scroll past the ads below.

All ads present items of interest to Leica owners.






Buy vintage Leica cameras from 
America's premier Leica specialist 

           http://www.tamarkinauctions.com/               http://www.tamarkin.com/leicagallery/upcoming-show


Click on image to enlarge

Please make payment via PayPal to GMP Photography

Click on image to enlarge
Please make payment via PayPal to GMP Photography

Click on image to enlarge
Please make payment via PayPal to GMP Photography

No comments:

Post a Comment