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“Almost all people are hypnotics.
The proper authority saw to it that the proper belief should be induced and the people believed properly.”
— Charles Hoy Fort

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Leica Freedom Train

On a much more positive note, thank God, our Jim, (who is quite the opposite of me politically, you might be interested to know, and will be causing a ruckus here as soon as he remembers his password), sent me with pride the following regarding a heretofore nearly unknown WWII activity of the ultimate optical house, Leitz, makers of Leica cameras, for whom he once worked...

Makes me proud to have worked for them.

The Leica Freedom Train.
The Leitz family, owners of the famous optical firm in Wetzlar were Protestants. The family supported one of the democratic political parties in Germany at the time the National Socialists gained control of the country and began their well documented punishment of their Jewish countrymen. With the increasing intrusion of the Nazi government into business and social life, Leitz quietly began assessing the effect of government policy on its staff and German dealers, many of who were Jewish. Leitz began a practice of buying back stock from affected dealers, reselling it to any who emigrated to America. From there they began 'hiring' people associated with the firm who were at grave risk. Each new employee was quickly trained to use and demonstrate the Leica. After training, Leitz applied for an exit permit to send the new 'employee' to America to assist in generating sales.

In America, the Leitz subsidiary worked hard to find jobs for these emigrants - some with little or no English skills. It was said that an editor of the Leica Magazine called every Leitz account in America to help place the new employees. It was also rumoured that Leitz paid full salary for three months and half salary for the next three months. In all, it is estimated some 300 or more people benefited from the program. To the German government, the program was transferring skilled salesmen to America to generate hard currency sales.

searching for beneficiariesPhotographica article by George GilbertPhoto International article by Norman LiptonLeica Photography MagazineShekel Magazine

Telling the tale.

Long after the war ended, the story of the Freedom Train program was first proposed to Reader's Digest with its 12 million plus readers. Leitz directors regretfully refused permission as long as the people involved were still alive and possibly at risk of retaliation. By 1987 the last of the protagonists had died and George wrote a small half page article that was published in various photographic chronicles. A decade later, the story was briefly covered in the book Illustrated World Wide Who's Who of Jews in Photography (see review in the May 1997 issue of Photographic Canadiana). George sent an abbreviated version of the story to the various photographic societies for publication - we published the story in our May 2002 issue. Unfortunately, efforts to find anyone with relatives who were helped by Leitz has failed to turn up anyone to date.

Article by Rabbi Frank Dabba SmithLeica Freedom Train brochure
Norman LipmanRabbi Frank Dabba Smith

The Freedom Train story and the role played by Norman Lipman, George Gilbert, and Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith to bring it to light, are covered in Rabbi Smith's 2002 pamphlet The Leica Freedom Train published by the American Photographic Historical Society in New York. A copy was provided to each attendee at this presentation.

George Gilbert with Robert Wilson
Post meeting discussions
Post meeting discussions


Questions? Please contact me at phsc at phsc.ca.

Robert Carter

Obtain your copy of this fascinating work... The greatest invention of the Leitz family: The Leica freedom train


Jim said...

While I was associated with the Leica group for many years as a dealer salesman, I was only priviledged to work for them directly for a single year. 1973 -74 I think. Strangely during that time not a word was mentioned about this history. A great deal of Wartime lore and individual histories were commonly discussed, but never a word about the "Train".

One of my more frequent companions was a Swiss born Jew and he never let a word slip even though he did pass a lot of gossip about the whole company and the origin od the American branch in amusing detail. Apparently they can really keep a secret!

If this history had been known , it would have definately boosted sales in the medical area which was much more aware of the evils of the Third Reich than the general population. Camera sales, I suspect, would have doubled for a year or more. Leica always published beautiful booklets of it's history in both microscopes and cameras. What a shame that modesty and fear erassed this chapter.

James Boyd
Technical Representative
Scientific Instrument Division
Leitz Territory 26
Another Time Another World

bernie said...

Great man and a great family. Amazing that the secret was kept from the public so long.

Btw, I used one of your photos for my article Leica and the Jews, with full attribution.