Most would know Leica as a German camera company but few know that this company made history by not only being the inventor of the 35 mm camera , they saved hundreds of lives in WWII.
Leica started as an Optical Institute in 1849 by an optician, Carl Kellner, about twenty years later Ernst Leitz becomes Managing director. Our story really begins when Ernst Leitz II, the Second son of Ernst Leitz, becomes head of E. Leitz optical company in 1920. He decided to expand the optical company to include cameras. Making an abbreviation of Leitz and camera, which then created the name Leica. The company earlier on had been experimenting with making portable cameras, so that people could take landscape photos with out lugging around bulky pieces of equipment. This inspired one man to search for and find a new way of taking photographs. His name Oskar Barnack, he understood that in order for this to be achieved, he would to need small negatives, which could create large pictures. He came upon the idea while constructing a light meter for his 18×24 mm film movie camera. He realized that by combining two of its small frames, then building a compact camera which used 24×36 mm film format, would make his vision a reality. Thus the 35 mm film was created, then from this the revolutionary Ur-Leica was born.
The second model of the Ur-leica was given to Barnacks boss, Ernst Leitz ll, on a journey to the United States in the spring of 1914. Leitz ll returns with amazing photographs of street life in New York, and in that same year a patent application was submitted to cover the basics of he Ur-leica. After WWl and several expert warnings against the idea, Ernst Leitz II in 1924 decides to put the 35 mm into mass production, with some help and convincing by his employee Oskar Barnack.
In 1933 Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, at this time Ernst Leitz ll started receiving frantic phone calls from Jewish associates asking for his help in getting them and their families out of the country. Since Leitz ll and his family were Christians, they were immune to the Nuremberg laws that were put in place in Germany. These laws restricted the movement of Jewish people and limited their professional activities.
In order to help his Jewish employees, their families, and others, Leitz ll took an incredible risk and defied Nazi policy. He quietly began creating jobs and “assigning” the refugees to Leitz sales offices in Britain, Hong Kong, France, and the United States. The refugees were trained, housed, and given a stipend until the company was able to find jobs for them in the photo industry. This covert means to help refugees escape Nazi Germany, became known as the ” Leica Freedom Train”, and it lasted till about 1943.
Not to long after, the “employees” were disembarking onto the New York Pier, wearing around their neck a symbol of freedom, a Leica Camera. His selfless act of having the courage to care in a time of absolute tyranny and from his ability to help others came the construction of the freedom train. Ernst Leitz ll, an unsought hero, was estimated to have helped over 200-300 people escape to the United States from Nazi Germany.