Dr Ernst Leitz

Ernst Leitz

Dr Ernst Leitz II (1871-1956) owned the factory in Wetzlar, Germany that produced the world famous Leica 35mm camera. His efforts to help those who were facing oppression and persecution reflected Dr Leitz’s long involvement in democratic politics, his sense of humanitarianism and compassion as well as a company tradition of behaving ethically and protectively towards a highly valued workforce.

The support Dr Leitz gave to persecuted individuals represented appropriate ways of resisting the Nazi regime at a particular time period. For example, in the early to mid-1930s when Jews were being marginalized economically and socially, Jewish young people were offered, as appropriate, lengthy apprenticeships or brief training programmes at the Leitz factory.

Later in the 1930s, as the urgency to leave Germany was increasingly felt by vulnerable individuals and families, the Wetzlar factory and its overseas agencies helped employees find freedom and work in the United States and other places of refuge. This practical assistance consisted of training, letters of recommendation and financial support, including the illegal transfer of funds overseas.

After Germany’s borders were closed for emigration, Dr Leitz’s company provided financial support and factory employment and, in some cases, active legal interventions on behalf of racially marginalized individuals and those accused of making remarks or actions deemed hostile to the regime. These activities included giving testimonies very favourable to the defendant’s case and persuading prosecutors to reduce criminal charges to ones carrying less serious penalties. In one instance, Dr Leitz attempted to help a Jewish woman, Hedwig Palm, escape to Switzerland, but unfortunately was unsuccessful. The failure resulted in Dr Leitz’s daughter, Elsie Kuehn-Leitz, being imprisoned in a Gestapo jail in Frankfurt. Hedwig Palm was deported to Ravensbruck where she later died.

A majority of those helped knew Dr Leitz in some way –in the workplace or through involvement in democratic politics– while some had no prior relationship with him until their plight was made known to him. These people came from a variety of social backgrounds, ranging from the culturally prominent to those living anonymous lives in very modest circumstances. At present, there is knowledge of more than fifty people who were helped to create new lives overseas and approximately twenty who remained in Germany whose sufferings were considerably lessened.

This story was submitted by Frank Dabba Smith who is working on a PhD on this subject in the department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London.

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