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Ernst Leitz II: The man who defied the Gestapo to rescue the persecuted

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 Busts of Ernst Leitz II, III and I (right to left). Photo Frank Dabba Smith
Busts of Ernst Leitz II, III and I (right to left). Photo Frank Dabba Smith

Several times I’ve written about the interesting characters I bump into at Red Dot Cameras in London’s Old Street. Last month I recounted the story of Steve Edge, a customer I met as he was taking delivery of a new X-U underwater Leica. Steve is one of many.

 Ernst Leitz II, 1871-1956
Ernst Leitz II, 1871-1956

None, though, is more interesting than Frank Dabba Smith whom I have met on several occasions, quite by chance, in the clublike atmosphere of this City camera store.

Frank’s is a name I already knew. He is the guy who researched and published surprise findings on Ernst Leitz II’s efforts to help Jewish residents of Germany before and during the Second World War. He is also, to my knowledge, the only rabbi I have met in a camera shop. I can knock that off my bucket list.

Rummage

Frank is a dyed-in-the-wool Leica fan and enjoys nothing more than a rummage through the well-stocked cupboards at Red Dot. So keen is he, in fact, that he is completing a PhD at UCL based on his Leitz research, “Ernst Leitz of Wetzlar: Helping the Persecuted”.

Throughout his educational development, photography has played a vital role in putting his life and his work into perspective. His BA senior honours thesis at UC Berkeley back in 1978 was Photography and Ethnography while his rabbinic thesis in 1994 was entitled Photography and the Holocaust: A Critical Examination of the Usages by all Sides. No, they don’t come much keener.

Altruism of Ernst Leitz

Frank is a rabbi at the Mosaic Liberal Synagogue, based in Harrow, north-west London, and lives nearby with his wife Cathy and their three children. An American citizen, he has lived in Britain for nearly thirty years.

  Above: A medal struck by Leitz to commemorate Ernst Leitz II
Above: A medal struck by Leitz to commemorate Ernst Leitz II’s 70th birthday on March 1, 1941. Top, obverse, Ernst Leitz, the founder, 1843-1920. Bottom, reverse, Ernst Leitz II, man who completed the project

Undoubtedly, though, Frank is best known in photographic circles for his discovery of the part played by Ernst Leitz and the Leitz company in helping protect and save Jews in the Wetzlar area during the 1930s. The numbers are small, especially when compared with Oskar Schindler’s list, but Leitz took many serious risks. He did what he could but never tried to make capital out of his altruistic work.

From the earliest days of the Nazi regime, Leitz pursued an active policy of employing local Jewish technicians and training them to the point where he could claim that they were essential members of the team. And as the Nazis persecution intensified he arranged the transfer of Jewish employees and others to the USA. In many instances Leitz paid for their passage and guaranteed jobs.

Kristallnacht

In two instances Leitz’s behaviour was especially audacious. In the days following Kristallnacht the Leitz organisation purchased the residence of the well-known Wetzlar physician Aron Strauss. At a time when German Jews were realising as little as between four and seven percent of their assets before emigrating, Leitz bought the property for its full market value and illegally transferred the funds to America so that Dr. and Mrs. Strauss could resume their lives. Frank has obtained the actual sales documents from a Wetzlar archive.

 Frank Dabba Smith (left) with Ivor Cooper of London
Frank Dabba Smith (left) with Ivor Cooper of London’s Red Dot Cameras (Photo Mike Evans)

A second example demonstrates the acute risks for Leitz and his senior management team. A prominent Leica dealer, Heinrich Ehrenfeld, had suffered looting and damage to his shops during Kristallnacht. He was also arrested and sent to Buchenwald for a time. He was released only after he was able to prove he had a visa to the United States.

Gestapo spy

At this point, Leitz provided Ehrenfeld with a glowing letter of reference to enable him to re-establish himself in the USA. A copy of this letter was discovered by a Gestapo spy in the Leitz factory. This resulted in the arrest of the Leitz sales director, Alfred Türk, and subsequent high-level negotiations in Berlin.

 The Leitz Villa, Haus Friedwart in Wetzlar (photo by Frank Dabba Smith)
The Leitz Villa, Haus Friedwart in Wetzlar (photo by Frank Dabba Smith)

Türk was released and Leitz was merely reprimanded due to the intervention of a senior official at the Reich economic ministry who argued successfully that, as an exporter, Leitz provided foreign currency to the cash-starved Nazi regime. Under the terms of settlement Türk was retired and, much to the regime’s consternation, was paid his full salary until the end of the war when he resumed employment.

As an aside, Ehrenfeld changed his name to Harry Enfield and went on to establish a successful Leica dealership in Miami Beach. Today his granddaughter Jill Enfield is a respected New York-based art photographer and teacher.

In addition, Leitz provided long-term support to half-Jews and leftist politicians who remained in Germany. These activities were almost certainly known to the Gestapo and Leitz remained barely tolerated by the regime. There were two primary reasons for this. In the early days the Nazi government actively encouraged emigration as a method of ethnic cleansing and Leitz provided considerable practical and humanitarian assistance to the persecuted.

Later, as the opportunities for escape evaporated with the onset of war, the Leitz company was a protected supplier of wholly in-house designed cameras and strategically vital optics for the war machine. Simply put, the Nazis needed Ernst Leitz and his factory and were prepared to turn a blind eye to his humanitarian efforts.

You can read a fuller account of Frank Dabba Smith’s passion for the history of Leitz in this article in the Financial Times magazine. (Note: You might come up against the FT’s paywall and be asked to subscribe. This is annoying, but it seems to depend on where you are and which way the wind is blowing. Normally I don’t link to paywall publishers but this was an exception because it is a comprehensive article. There is a minimum subscription of £1, however, if you want to get past the guards).

Thanks to Ivor Cooper of Red Dot Cameras for attracting so many talented and interesting characters to his store in Old Street.

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6 COMMENTS

  1. I have no doubt that there were many people in nazi Germany that were sympathetic/empathetic to the manner in which that hateful regime treated some minorities, including Jews. As you mentioned in your text Mike, they hated Jews and "leftists", they hated gay people and gipsies, they hated those that were involved in burlesque and transgenderism…

    …And yet, their hateful creed "national socialism" is in itself leftist, it is sometimes referred to as fascism and or corporatism… The only reason it became labelled as "right wing" or more recently by the BBC/Guardian as "far right" is because it accepted the existence of companies such as existed at that time, such as Farben, Braun, Siemens and of course Leitz, many of which were even run or owned by Jews… The "real left" clove to Bolshevism or Menshevism and hated the idea of private ownership of anything, Jewish or not… Everything belonged to the people… aka "the government" and its privileged members.

    So the communists/socialists fell out with the "national socialists/fascists" and from that point onwards referred to the later as "right wing"… "far right" etc.

    The reality of course, is that the "right wing" as defined in post French revolutionary times, were those that believed that "the poor" aka the bottom 15% of society would always be there, no matter what people, church or government tried to do for them, so they just thought it better to not busy themselves any more than to commit themselves to charitable deeds and/or contributions, but fought hard against institutional/governmental authoritarianism as a cure for "the poor".

    The truth of course is that the cruelty of the early twentieth century, which spilled over into the late twentieth century and still continues, was due mainly to the destruction of the feudal system and the failure to replace it with functioning democracy, usually representative, but preferably direct, its natural successor… Some of the big players in this lack of transformation to democracy, are still at it… the established religions, like the (christian) catholics and the more powerful muslims (sunni), the banks and the very wealthy families and owners of corporate business.

    What such unfortunate nations as Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Russia, China, and many others got was fascist/socialist/communist dictatorship of some kind, the most victimised of these was China, where something of the order of 100 million people were killed in the name of Mao.

    Of course what it all boils down to is not the difference between left and right, but the difference between right and wrong. And it is wrong for ordinary people to allow themselves to be hijacked by people with "isms" as their creed, you have to keep your eye on the ball at every turn.

    • Wow, Karl mein Liebschen, I can see you haven’t lost your touch. Remember that time behind the bicycle sheds in the Wilhelmstrasse? As I said to Vladimir Ilych at the time, that dude is going places.

  2. A very inspiring story, Mike. It reminds me of the quote from my fellow countryman Edmund Burke that ‘ The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing’. That is as true today as it was in the 18th century. The Leitz family steered their company through some very difficult times in the 1930s and 1940s. At the same time they did what they could to help those who were endangered by the growing threat from fascism and totalitarianism. The fact that the company survived is also remarkable in itself. Rabbi Dabba Smith is to be congratulated on telling this story.

    William

    • Yes indeed William, I have just realised that my first paragraph below looks like I support the hatred of minorities, it is obvious that is not what I meant as is made clear further on in my ramble. I do ramble, I am surprised that nobody has noticed this?

      So Yes, the Rabbi is to be congratulated for his work, there is also a précis of his work on the Red Dot cameras website… I stumbled on it last night and read it through.

      As you say William, or rather as that great conservative Edmund Burke said: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing"…

      Which is precisely what happened in the 1930’s in Germany, and in the surrounding countries such as the UK, where there was the lone voice of Churchill being ritually subdued by the press and politicians alike, so bad was it that he ran away to America, the land of his mother.

      We must all, always be vigilant, there is evil amongst us, and it is usually in the form of institutions, often but not always, those that are long established.

      • BTW William, I am very much aware that Churchill’s father was not highly regarded in Ireland, and that the son was considered a bit of a villain in many quarters, but things have to be taken in the context of the time…

        Ireland was still part of the United Kingdom, the "Free State" was alive but recovering from civil war and the ROI had not yet been born.

        Much has changed.

  3. Churchill was never very popular here for various things that he did and said during his long life, but when the hour came he and many others, including a lot of Irish people, did something. We were in a very difficult situation at the time of WWII as the pains and hurts of our relationship and former relationship with Great Britain were very real and very recent. Thankfully, all of that is in the past. Ireland has never failed to play its part under the UN flag in peacekeeping and aid missions around the world. Our resources are small but we do what we can.

    William

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