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