April 29: Legend

Date #29Is the history of photography long enough to have generated its own myths and legends?

In medieval Latin legenda means ‘things to be read’ (from Latin legere ‘read’) as you do here, where you’ll find factual information which is the basis of the ideas expressed, not unauthenticated popular history which is the stuff of legend in the contemporary sense.


Leica II D (1938) 35mm rangefinder camera

As a fourteen year old I had read my father’s copy of Theo M. Scheerer‘s The Leica and the Leica System with religious fervour, and though I never did, I dreamed of owning a talisman of that legend. I managed to infect a wealthier friend with similar fervour, and in 1966 badgered him into buying a 1938 II d model at the princely sum of 22 guineas (about $A600) — I vividly remember the notes and camera being exchanged over the shop counter.

He was had…though the 50mm Summar f2 lens produced beautifully romantic soft-focus halation, it was because the front element was hideously abraded, requiring further expense and a long wait as it was repolished in Tasmania.

Unknown photographer (1933) Oskar Barnack at his desk at the Leitz Company

Nevertheless, Oscar Barnack remained (literally) our poster boy. Joining the company in 1901 in the microscope section, in 1923 he convinced his boss, Ernst Leitz II, to produce a ‘miniature’ Lei-tz ca-mera that used horizontally transported 35mm movie film, with subsequent success at the Spring Fair of Leipzig in 1925 in a reviving German economy which thirsted for luxury goods. The rich international Oscar Barnack Prize in his memory, and in acknowledgement of the use of his invention by some of the most celebrated photographers, is presented annually at Arles.

Such fanaticism — all those Leica fan clubs and collectors avariciously hoarding them — derives from their pared-down practicality, efficiency evident in the survival of the compact design, little changed (though arguably anachronistic) into the digital era, and the superb engineering of these objects, as much as the quality of the images they make in the right hands.

Washington D.C., 1957. Henri Cartier Bresson in Washington D.C.
Bob Henriques (1957) Henri Cartier-Bresson at civil rights demonstration in front of Martin Luther King. USA. Washington D.C.

A friend sent me a blog post he’d found on the Leica Freedom Train, it piqued my interest; soon discovering that it was a direct transcript of the Wikipedia article on that particular legend I wondered how true is the encyclopaedia entry. I note that editors have not given it a higher rating than a ‘Start’ class, meaning that it needs further checking, but sources are provided and they whet my curiosity.

The story is that Ernst Leitz II (1871-1956) saved the lives of ‘hundreds’ of Jewish people ‘and their families’ by sending them overseas, with a Leica camera around their necks, to Leitz dealer offices, repair workshops and showrooms; the USA being most usually mentioned as their destination but also Britain, France and Hong Kong, where they lived out WW2 in safety.

Unknown photographer (1940) Leitz Factory at night

Can it be that a mighty industrialist, who joined the Nazi party to forestall their acquiring his company and installing their own manager, would save Jews; actions which posed significant risks to the welfare of Dr Leitz and his family?

Leitz-manufactured U-Boat binoculars and case

The factories of Ernst Leitz I (1843–1920) produced rifle periscopes, rangefinders and other equipment for  WWI, and the company profited from WW2, making artillery aiming devices, selling their cameras to the Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe (Mike Eckman has the full story), and while Contax supplied U-Boat periscopes, Leitz furnished the powerful binoculars for the fleet captains and and manufactured navigation gear for the V-2 rocket. In 1942 the Nazis conscripted the forced labour of hundreds of Ukrainian women slaves to boost military production at Wetzlar,

Bildberichter PK combat cameraman at work with Leica, Visoflex reflex finder attachment and 800mm telephoto lens.
Black felt cuff with the legend “Propagandakompanie” embroidered in grey thread
Bildberichter combat cameraman of the Propagandakompanie with his field kit of Leica equipment.

Leicas, supplied in a neat field case, were used by the Bildberichter PK; the combat cameramen of the Propagandakompanie whose photographs emblazoned the pages of Signal which was distributed by the hundreds of thousands throughout the German-occupied European countries.

It is reported that after the War Leitz’ son Günther wanted his father’s deeds as a saviour publicised, but the unsentimental and phlegmatic industrialist ruled it out of order.

The story first surfaced in the English-speaking world in the 1960s and was circulated more widely in the early 2000s by a Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith (now 64) who is a self-professed Leica nut.

Norman Lipman, the former managing editor of Popular Photography who worked in Leitz’s New York office during the 1930s, and George Gilbert initiated the story, and in the 1960s offering it to Readers’ Digest. The magazine reportedly rejected it when Leitz officials insisted they wait until the descendants were all deceased.

So it remained unpublished until 1987 when half page articles were printed in various photographic magazines including Popular Photography. A decade later, the story was briefly covered in George Gilbert’s Illustrated World Wide Who’s Who of Jews. The contribution of Lipman, Gilbert, and Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith in researching and publicising the ‘Freedom Train’ story is covered in Rabbi Smith’s 2002 pamphlet The Leica Freedom Train published by the American Photographic Historical Society in New York.

The number actually rescued seems to be disputed. A 2007 press release of the Anti-Defamation League announced the posthumous conferral of an ADL Courage to Care Award posthumously to Ernst Leitz II being accepted by his granddaughter, Cornelia Kuehn-Leitz. It names one survivor, Kurt Enfield, and estimates numbers of employees and their families who were saved from the Holocaust “may have been as high as 200-300 in the United States alone,” and potentially higher, considering that source mentions that Leica ’employees’ were sent to Leitz sales offices in France, Britain and Hong Kong.

Kate Connolly in her 2007 Guardian article gives the numbers he saved as “about 50 sent to the US plus 23 others [. . .] much smaller than those rescued by Sudeten German industrialist Oskar Schindler, to whom Leitz is being compared.” That article names two survivors, Kurt Rosenberg for whom there is evidence that Leitz paid for his journey to New York in 1938 and got him a post at the Leica showroom on Fifth Avenue, and the aforementioned Henry Enfield. It is likely that Connolly is working from the most reliable source; Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith’s 12,000 word article “Dr Ernst Leitz II of Wetzlar and the people he helped during The Shoah: Research In Progress.” European Judaism: A Journal for the New Europe, vol. 40, no. 1, 2007, pp. 3–37.

Rosenberg at Leitz
Unknown photographer (c.1933-38) Kurt Rosenberg at the Leitz factory. During Rosenberg’s short career with Leitz in America he invented the close focusing device (Naheinstellzusatz), but while serving in the American military he was killed when American troop ship ‘Liberty Paul Hamilton’, was torpedoed on 20 April 1944. (Courtesy of Kurt Rosenberg Archive/Jan Jaben-Eilon)

In it he reports in detail on 35 cases, with eight involving whole families, for whom Leitz provided life-saving assistance of one kind or another, naming the survivors, most of whom, it should be acknowledged, being known to Leitz personally; Nathan Rosenthal and Family, Kurt Rosenberg, Robert Siegmund Sternberg and Family, Hans-Martin and Gertrud Hammerschlag, Ehrenfeld Family, Brenner Family, Brinkmann Family, Stefan and Sara Rosenbauer, Lotte Goldschmidt, Marie Luise Deutsch, Dr Aron Strauss and Mrs Betty Strauss, the Steiner Family, Jakob Rosenthal and Family, Christine and Lore Jessel, the Schindler Family, Dr Arthur Becker and Family, Professor Max Derek, Paul Flohr, Alfred Türk and Karl Horn. Others are less definite; District administrator Kurt Fechner, Dagwood (originally Dagobert) Horn, Edith Katzenstein (training in the factory), Reverend Adolf Korell (financial assistance), a ‘Mr Lenhard’ (providing Leitz witnesses to assist for defence in his trial for espionage), District Administrator Konrad Miss (provided a car and driver to assist his escape from arrest), Trude Salomon (assisted in 1937 by Elsie Kuhn-Leitz in emigrating from Germany to the United States), a ‘Mr Straus’, possibly ‘Hugo Straus’ (who was employed at the Leitz agency in London), Mrs Gertrud Woller (employed at Leitz Wetzlar), Emil Wünsche (perhaps assisted against persecution)

In addition (quoting from Smith’s paper) Ernst Leitz II had commercial relationships with several Jewish representatives abroad. Despite Nazi pressure to dismiss these distributors, Dr Leitz maintained business ties until the events of the war intervened. They included: Mr Frohlich, agency in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, until 1940; Mr Metsch, owner of the firm Strelisker in Bucharest, representative for Romania until 1940;  Mr Garfinkiel, Warsaw, representative for Poland, until 1939; Mr Gondos, Budapest, representative for Hungary; and Mr Hassan, co-owner of the firm Lutz Ferrando, Buenos Aires, Argentina.

He concludes that “while most of Lipton’s [Norman Lipman] claims regarding particular cases have been corroborated, his stated recollections of high numbers of other ‘Leitz refugees’ sent to America do indeed appear to be exaggerations,” but in a later interview (translated from the German here) he says there were somewhere between 60 and 80.

This certainly helps to rehabilitate the Leica legend and reputation. In the balance however, their fine binoculars, and lens elements for military rangefinders and gun sights helped kill disproportionately more people…and during the actual war period, did the glowering shadow of Nazi pride in their concentration camps, medical experiments and exterminations infiltrate a Summar f2 50mm?

“The last Jew in Vinnitsa.”

Like this photograph. The legend – in the hand of a German soldier – written on the back, is “The last Jew in Vinnitsa.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.