It wasn't exactly a boycott, but in the late 1930s many Americans were loath to purchase German goods because of Nazi persecution of the Jews. Aside from Graflex and Speed Graphic cameras and some view cameras, serious amateurs and professionals found American-made cameras—Kodak 35s, Ciroflexes, Perfexes—rather primitive, and often poorly made. And while Kodak produced the 35mm interchangeable lens 35mm Ektra camera, it was a delicate beast with most peculiar controls (I know, I have one!). When pros needed dependable, advanced cameras and lenses, they were usually talking about German cameras, principally Leica cameras made by Ernst Leitz Wetzlar GmbH. Many pros and serious amateurs bought them, reluctantly, because of the origin.
So you can imagine the personal anguish this situation might have proved in the late 1930s for a 25-year-old employee of E. Leitz, Inc. in New York, Norman C. Lipton. What excuse could a Jew give for working for a German company such as Leitz?
A good one, it turned out, but how much was Lipton able to explain except privately? I'm not certain. During the 1950s when he was Popular Photography's Managing Editor, Lipton kept quiet and as late as 1967, he was forbidden to write what he knew by no less a personage than Guenther Leitz, son of Ernst Leitz II who made the decision to produce the Leica in the recession year 1925 saying "Barnack's camera shall be made." Guenther Leitz 's admonition about writing what the company had been up to was: "Absolutely not! Not while I'm alive."
Two years later Guenther Leitz was gone, but for reasons not known, Lipton never did get the chance to write the story for Readers Digest, as he wished, or for Popular Photography either. His story finally did appear in the December 1999 issue of Photo International, a Japanese trade magazine, now discontinued.
In today's inquisitional lingo, what did Lipton know and when did he know it?
Lipton wrote: "After being hired by the New York Office of Leitz in 1938, on alternate weeks, I witnessed the arrival and processing of thirty or more Leitz-sponsored refugees who were lined up along the wall of our office waiting to be interviewed by Alfred Boch, Executive Vice President of E. Leitz, Inc. Boch put them up at the nearby Great Northern Hotel and spent the succeeding days on the telephone finding jobs for them throughout New York and the nation."
These refugees were Jews, trained in the camera business by Leitz in Germany so that upon immigration, they could find jobs in the U.S. Many were Leitz employees or photo dealers. But written testimony of others expressing their appreciation in writing directly to Ernst Leitz II, described how the company trained and sent over many Jews from a wide area of Germany with the full cooperation of top Leitz management. A daring move. Other letters of thankful appreciation to Ernst Leitz II indicated that the firm was aiding Jewish refugees as early as Hitler becoming Chancellor in 1933. And while Germany's borders were finally sealed in August 1939 with the invasion of Poland, the Leitz family was still aiding Jews as late as 1943 when Ernst Leitz II's daughter, Dr. Elsie Kuehn-Leitz was arrested by the Gestapo for attempting to help one woman to escape across the border into Switzerland. Leitz spent over two months in prison until a considerable ransom was paid.
Norman Lipton called the Leitz refugee aid the "underground railway out of Germany," but it's become better known over the years as "The Leica Freedom Train." No one knows exactly how many Jews were rescued and the complete story and testimonies are not in print anywhere, although they deserve to be. Some information has appeared here and there on the Internet, in Leica journals, technical magazines, self-published booklets, lectures before historical societies and newspaper articles. However, as I write this, a major, respected national magazine (Vanity Fair) contacted me about the story and has now taken up the trail of the Freedom Train so all may yet be brought to light.
I'm in debt to two photo historians for much of the information that I have condensed. George Gilbert alerted me to the story and furnished considerable information, I have borrowed disgracefully from Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith's writings, particular for confirmation testimony, dates and specific traceable quotes. His continuing enthusiastic, patient and careful research into the true facts leaves me with nothing but admiration. I hope both will forgive me because it was all done in a good cause.
There has been much debate as to why Guenther Leitz refused so adamantly to have the story printed during his lifetime. Because readers might think Leitz wished to brag about it? I doubt that. I think the Leitz family did what was done because it was the right thing to do and thus needed no explaining.
There has been much debate as to why Gunther Leitz refused so adamantly to have the story printed during his lifetime. Perhaps because readers might think Leitz wished to brag about it? I doubt that. I think the Leitzes did what was done because it was the right thing to do and thus needed no explaining.
Following World War II's end, the ensuing highly successful Leica M camera series introduction, and the retirement from the board of directors of the last Leitz family member in 1986, Ernst Leitz Wetzlar GMBH was taken over by a Swiss conglomerate. This group then divided up the spoils, as the highly knowledgeable co-founder of the Leica Historical Society of America, Rolf Fricke, so well put it. The group sold off the profitable Leitz Canadian subsidiary in Midland, Ontario, Canada, now ELCAN Optical Technologies, to Hughes Aircraft. ELCAN stands for Ernst Leitz Canada.
Why did Leitz have a Canadian subsidiary? Guenther Leitz told Fricke it was initially created to safeguard Leitz know-how and documents in case of a Soviet takeover since the Russians were but a half hour from Leitz' door in Wetzlar. (Perhaps he may have had in mind the post-war takeover by the Soviets of the Dresden-made Zeiss Contax camera, along with its machine tools and plans, all of which were spirited to Kiev!)
Why not a Leitz subsidiary in the U.S.? Because, as Fricke reported, in both World War I and II, Leitz plants in the U.S. had been expropriated without compensation and Leitz didn't want to have it possibly to happen again.
Cambridge Instruments in England was one of many companies within the conglomerate. In the society bulletin, Fricke credits (?) one of its executives with probably suggesting that, since the name “Leica” was so well known worldwide and was an easy to remember word, the names of all companies within the conglomerate should be hanged to “Leica”. Perhaps that exec thought the Leica name would help the sale of the companies.
And so it came to pass that the name “Leitz”, the original name of the parent company even before the first Leica camera was produced, virtually disappeared. It was no longer to be on cameras, lenses, binoculars and microscopes. Only the name “Leica”. Leitz binoculars became Leica binoculars. Microscopes and surveying equipment would now bear the Leica name. Even non-Leitz companies in the conglomerate such as Wild GEO systems became Leica Geosystems. Each would bear the Leica name but when sold, not be related to one another! And the sale of all named Leica went on.
Separated from of all the other former Leitz divisions, Leica Camera AG is now on its own, five miles from Wetzlar in Solms. And as a last bit of irony, as Fricke points out, Leica Camera AG doesn't own its own brand name: a Leica holding company owns it and licenses Leica Camera AG the right to use it!