Today: Ernst Leitz, a German industrialist who risked his life and the lives of his family to secretly save hundreds of Jewish people from the Nazis.
Ernst Leitz was the CEO of Leica, famous for its outstanding cameras and optical equipment. He was a stern man but his employees knew beneath that exterior he had a heart of gold.
When Adolf Hitler took power in 1933, some of Leica’s Jewish employees came to him hoping he would help them get out of Germany.
And Ernst quickly accommodated them. He transferred them to Leica offices in Britain, France, Hong Kong or the U.S. and moved their families as well. He helped them get visas and kept them on the payroll until they could find other jobs and resettle.
But many German Jews chose to remain in Germany, their home for generations and the basis for their culture and their language. They ignored the Nazi threat. That is until Kristallnacht.
Known in English as the Night of Broken Glass, on November 9, 1938, across Germany and part of Austria, Nazi storm troopers and mobs took sledgehammers, tire irons and other weapons and smashed or lit ablaze every structure or possession seen as Jewish.
Police and firefighters stood by and watched, acting only if an “Aryan” or an “Aryan” building was threatened.
Mob psychology quickly took over as they screamed anti-Semitic slogans and called for the blood of Jewish people, who they had come to believe were a dire threat to the German people and the scum of the earth.
Some of those in the mob had been the friends and neighbors and business associates of these Jewish people, while many others sat quietly as this violence took place.
Synagogues, homes and businesses were left in rubble, as shards of smashed glass glistened in the sun the following morning, where windows and mirrors had existed before.
91 Jewish men, women and children were beaten to death and many more were injured. 30,000 Jewish men were seized and locked up in concentration camps.
From that time on, Jews had no legal rights and for those who could not escape, they would soon become part of The Final Solution. The Holocaust had begun.
The Leica German Jewish employees were frantic and pleaded for Ernst’s help.
In response, he began secretly operating what Holocaust historians term, “The Leica Freedom Train,” in which he sharply increased his overseas corporate transfers. Now he included not only Jewish employees and their families but other Jewish people who came to him.
The Leica Freedom Train ran from 1938 to September 1st, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland to start World ll. Germany then shut its borders as it tightened its security.
Nobody knows how many Jewish people Ernst rescued but it was in the hundreds. He was a hero but in the years after World War ll, he refused to take credit for his humanitarian work. His son Gunther pleaded with him to let him tell his remarkable story but he declined.
“He did what he did because he felt responsible for his workers, their families, for our neighbors in Wetzlar,” Gunther told the British newspaper, The Guardian in 2007.
We know what Ernst did largely because of the research of California born Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith, who today heads a London synagogue. He located photographs, letters of gratitude and other artifacts, and he contacted survivor’s families.
He published the results in a 2002 book, “The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train” and in a 2003 book, “Elsie’s War.”
And we learned there was more. Leica executive Alfred Turk was thrown in jail for helping Jews. Quietly a large bribe was paid and he was freed.
But it gets worse. The Gestapo seized Ernst’s daughter, Elsie Kuhn-Leitz at the Swiss border, helping Jewish women escape Germany. She was brutally questioned, but eventually freed. She could have been sent to a death camp like Auschwitz or shot on the spot.
Later, the Nazis suspected Elsie of the crime of providing humane living conditions for several hundred female Ukrainian slave laborers who the Nazis assigned to the Leica plant in the 1940’s.
But the Leitz family survived the Nazis and the war, including allied bombings and extreme food and housing shortages afterward.
Only after Ernst and Elsie later died did the secretive Leica Freedom Train come to light. During her life, Elsie received major humanitarian awards for her work others knew of but like her father, she kept much of her work to herself.
Today, the Leitz legacy is the thousands of people who live, including the children and children’s children and the many lives they in turn touch because of the courageous action Ernst, his family and executives took in the face of the horrific madness mankind had unleashed.
If ever you lose heart because of the cruelty mankind commits, remember that there are people like the Leitz family who secretly do marvelous humanitarian work, even at the cost of risking or losing their lives. They offer mankind hope and the potential for a better future.
Success Tip of the Week:
Is there a humanitarian cause you believe in that needs your help? If so, please think of the Leitz family and make this the week you take action.
Editor's Note:Thank you to my friend and fellow peace activist John Fortier for informing me of the Leica Freedom Train, which began the research into what became this article.
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