New life through a lens
Financial Times magazine
Mark Honigsbaum February 2, 2007
‘One of the marks of the true altruist is that they don’t parade their works; they just get on with it’ - Frank Dabba Smith.
For me, a lot of this goes back to being a teenager, dribbling over photography magazines and fantasising about being Henri Cartier-Bresson. And then, on top of that, there’s the Jewish bit.” Frank Dabba Smith, rabbi of the Harrow and Wembley Progressive Synagogue in northwest London, is trying to explain what first drew him to photography.
It is a bright winter morning in Harrow on the Hill, but the curtains in Smith’s living room are drawn as he adjusts his slide projector. On one wall, a grainy shot of an ash-coated shop window near the World Trade Center site in New York, the dusty glass inscribed with the legend “Heros [sic] live forever”, jockeys for attention with portraits of Smith’s wife and his three children.
Finally, Smith is ready. He slots the first slide into place - a striking night-time image of a 1930s German factory complex, showing a series of linked blocks with the lights burning on every floor. On the main building, spelled out in giant neon capitals, is a sign that reads “ERNST LEITZ”.
“This is the factory in Wetzlar where Leitz manufactured the Leica camera and apprenticed young Jews who were victims of anti-Semitism,” explains Smith, an authority on the use of photography as a propaganda tool during the Holocaust. “Much of Wetzlar was destroyed by Allied bombing during the war, but somehow the factory survived.”
The next slide is from 1911. It shows Ernst Leitz II, then a vigorous 40-year-old, posing with his three children, Elsie, Ludwig and Ernst III, beneath a portrait of his father, Ernst I, the founder of the camera company.
But it is the following series of images that Smith, who has spent 15 years researching Leitz’s role in Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany, has brought me here to see. The first is a portrait of a local Wetzlar corn merchant, a Jew called Nathan Rosenthal. Dressed in a smart suit and waistcoat, he is seated beside his wife Else and their children Paul, then 14, and Gertrude. The year is 1929 and they look settled and contented, a picture of middle-class German respectability.
Next comes a shot of one of Leitz’s young Jewish apprentices, Kurt Rosenberg, beavering away at his workbench. This is followed by a slide showing Rosenberg’s original apprenticeship contract and a certificate with the date he completed his training and left Germany. The documents clearly show that Rosenberg was apprenticed at Wetzlar from 1933 to 1937, and emigrated on January 28 1938, setting sail for New York on a Hamburg-America Line steamer. “Rosenberg’s is the strongest case of all because there’s a paper trail,” explains Smith. “Not only can we show that he was a Leitz apprentice, but we have proof that Leitz paid his passage to New York and later gave him a job in the Leica showroom on Fifth Avenue.”
According to Smith, both Rosenberg and Rosenthal’s son, Paul, were beneficiaries of a remarkable series of transports designed to spirit German Jews to freedom out of Nazi Germany. Now these convoys and the man who masterminded them are to finally get the recognition they deserve. This week, on February 9, the Anti-Defamation League, a non-profit group devoted to battling anti-Semitism, will present Ernst II’s granddaughter, Cornelia Kuhn-Leitz, with the Courage to Care Award, in recognition of Leitz’s role in helping at least 41 Jews to flee Germany during the Nazi persecution of the 1930s. In addition, Leitz is being credited with helping a further 23 people to circumvent Nazi laws aimed at punishing Jews and Germans related to Jews by marriage.
Past recipients of the ADL’s award include Jan and Miep Gies, who sheltered Anne Frank and her family, and Oskar Schindler, the Sudeten German industrialist who is estimated to have saved more than 1,200 Polish Jews from death in the Krakow ghetto. On the evidence available, the number of people Leitz helped was far smaller, but according to Smith, who has painstakingly pieced together the story of the Leica refugees, the risks the Wetzlar entrepreneur took were just as high.
Leitz’s humanitarian efforts on behalf of Wetzlar’s Jews began within days of Hitler’s rise to power in March 1933 and continued through Kristallnacht, the night in November 1938 when Jewish businesses and synagogues were systematically looted. Leitz’s secret campaign only ended in 1939, when Hitler’s invasion of Poland resulted in the closure of Germany’s borders.
Typically, young Jewish men like Rosenberg would be offered apprenticeships at Wetzlar. Then, after varying periods of training, they would be transferred to New York and put to work in the Fifth Avenue showroom or associated dealerships across the US. Leitz paid all the bills for their travel, and his executives furnished the refugees with letters of introduction and helped them obtain visas.
Incredibly, it is only now that the full story of the Leica escape routes is emerging. There are several reasons for this, the main one being that Leitz, a modest and close-lipped Protestant businessman, never spoke about the Nazi period in public, and even kept his good works secret from his family.
“One of the marks of the true altruist is that they don’t parade their works, they just get on with it,” says Smith. “From Ernst Leitz’s point of view, he was only doing what any decent person would have done in his position.”
It is hard to think of an invention that had a greater influence on the photographic record of the 20th century than the Leica. Launched at the 1925 Leipzig spring fair, Leica was one of the first cameras to combine high-quality lenses with a compact portable body. The brainchild of Oskar Barnack, a brilliant young mechanic whom Leitz had poached from rival company Carl Zeiss, this quintessentially German product revolutionised 35mm photography; by the 1930s, pictures taken on Leicas filled the pages of magazines such as Life and Picture Post.
But while leftist photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa were using Leicas to capture documentary-style images, the Nazis were using them for more sinister purposes. In August 1937, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, instructed news photographers that the “use and promotion of small modern cameras constitute[s] a duty inherent to their mission”. Two years later, he dispatched propaganda squads equipped with Leicas to the Warsaw ghetto to record the “degenerate” habits of the city’s Jews.
Leicas became a preferred vehicle for projecting idealised Nazi images of the “master race” - a trend particularly apparent in the consumer advertising from the period produced by the Leitz company itself, in which Aryan women balance on the end of diving boards as their blond infants frolic at the pool side. Indeed, on the face of it Leitz ran a model Nazi corporation, supplying Leicas to the Army and the Luftwaffe, and manufacturing the navigation gear for the V-2 rocket. Not only that, but in 1942 the Nazis forcibly conscripted hundreds of women slave labourers from the Ukraine to bolster military production at Wetzlar, a fact that prompted Holocaust survivors to file a class-action suit in 1998 against Leica and other leading German manufacturers such as Siemens and Daimler-Benz, accusing them of illegally profiting from Jewish and eastern-European slave labour. (In Leica’s case, the allegations were never proven. Nevertheless, in 1999 the German government and more than 100 German companies, including Leica, agreed to a compensation fund totalling $7.5bn.)
Was it really credible, wondered Smith, that at the same time as Leitz was supplying parts to the Nazis, he was rescuing Wetzlar’s Jews? And if so, how did he and his executives keep their activities hidden from the Gestapo?
Then there was the question of motive. Although Leitz had been a prominent member of the German Democratic Party before the war, in 1942 he joined the Nazis. Was Leitz, like Schindler, whose Krakow enamelware factory depended on Jewish slave labour and who many historians of the Holocaust argue was initially motivated by self-interest, a bit of an opportunist? Or was his Nazi-party membership a tactic, a way of allaying the Gestapo’s suspicions so that he could continue protecting his employees?
Smith makes an unlikely sleuth. A softly spoken Californian with receding, light-brown hair and Woody Allen-esque glasses, he has lived in London since the late 1980s and has a bookish innocence. He first began taking photographs as a schoolboy growing up in San Diego, and at 15 blew all his bar mitzvah money on his first Leica. His love affair hasn’t abated since. As a semi-professional photographer - he’s had more than 150 photographs published in The Economist - he favours the Leica MP and M6 rangefinder cameras and the latest Leica aspherical lenses.
Smith first heard about Leitz’s role in Jewish emigration from Nazi Germany when he was a student at Berkeley and came across a passing reference to the Leica apprentices in an article about Norman Lipton, the managing editor of Popular Photography magazine. As a 25-year-old, Lipton had worked in the advertising department at Leica’s offices on Fifth Avenue. From May 1938 to August 1940, he says he witnessed the arrival of scores of German Jewish refugees from the Wetzlar factory. According to Lipton, the refugees were processed by Alfred Boch, the company’s general manager and vice-president. As Lipton was to recall in a subsequent magazine article: “I would see between 20 and 30 weary men and women lined up along the side wall of our large open ‘bullpen’ office. All carried luggage and a Leica camera around their necks. The line moved slowly in and out of Boch’s private office at the front of the room. The process was repeated every few weeks, following the alternate arrivals of the SS Bremen and SS Europa at the nearby Hudson River piers.”
Lipton claimed the refugees were then escorted to the nearby Great Northern hotel on West 57th street (now demolished) where they were housed and fed until jobs could be found for them at Leica and other camera businesses. “Day after day, Boch would be on the telephone trying to match their skills and training to job openings - at Kodak, Wollensack, Ilex, Univis and other upstate New York optical firms, as well as at camera stores, photofinishing laboratories, factories and business offices where their skills could be put to use.”
In 1967, Lipton set about tracing and interviewing his Jewish former co-workers with a view to publishing the tale in Reader’s Digest. But when he approached Gunther Leitz, the youngest of Leitz’s three sons (born after the 1911 photo), he received a surprising response. Over dinner at Haus Friedwart, the sumptuous mansion overlooking Wetzlar that Leitz had built in 1917, Gunther made it clear he didn’t want the story published in his lifetime. “My father did what he could because he felt responsible for his employees and their families and also for our neighbours,” he told Lipton. “He was able to act because the government needed our factory’s output. No one can ever know what other Germans had done for the persecuted within the limits of their ability to act.”
Lipton reluctantly agreed to Gunther’s request (indeed, his story in Photo International, from which the above details have been taken, did not appear until 1999, 30 years after Gunther’s death). Were it not for Smith, that might have been the end of the matter.
In 1991 Smith visited Wetzlar and toured the Leica factory. But it wasn’t until he stumbled on another reference to the Leica story - this time in an encyclopedia of Jewish photography - during a visit to New York in 1997 that he decided to contact Lipton. By now the editor was in his 80s and retired, although he was still living in New York and doing the occasional freelance job for photographic companies.
One of the first documents Lipton showed him was a letter from Nathan Rosenthal, the Wetzlar corn merchant, sent to Leitz from New York in February 1947. Rosenthal begins by recalling how the “Nazi criminals” forced him to flee to America in 1938. However, it was the next paragraph that caught Smith’s eye: “I shall always be grateful that when I pleaded my plight to you 14 days after Hitler’s rise to power, when my son Paul, who was in the upper fifth of the high school and who could no longer shield himself from the anti-Semitism of his teacher, you immediately accepted him into your firm without taking into account the political [consequences]. His training with you and later employment in your firm here [in New York] made a way for us to emigrate which would otherwise have been completely impossible.”
Lipton also handed Smith a letter from Henry Enfield, a Miami Beach camera dealer, dating from 1961. It explained how, in 1935, Enfield, who was then living in Frankfurt, had sent his son to England for safety, and how, after the boy finished school, Leitz had helped him to obtain an apprenticeship at Wallace & Heating, a prominent photographic dealer on Bond Street. In August 1938, three months before Kristallnacht, Enfield had approached Leitz for advice about liquidating his assets and relocating to the US. With the help of senior Leica executives, he obtained a visa from the US embassy in Stuttgart. Like Kurt Rosenberg, Enfield was also furnished with a letter of introduction to Leica’s New York office signed by Alfred Turk, Leica’s sales director. That transfer cost Leitz dearly: following Enfield’s departure, a spy at the Wetzlar factory leaked Turk’s letter to the Gestapo, and Turk was thrown in jail, forcing Leitz to travel to Berlin to negotiate - successfully - his release.
Smith was eager to question Rosenthal and Enfield further but both were dead. Nor was Paul Rosenthal very forthcoming. Smith didn’t give up. Instead, he wrote directly to the Leitz family, and got an immediate response from Knut Kuhn-Leitz, son of Leitz’s daughter Elsie.
Knut was seven years old when his mother was arrested for her own attempt to help a Wetzlar Jew, and he had vivid memories of the Gestapo bursting into their house while he and his sister were in the bath. Knut had been very close to his grandfather, but while they had spent many happy afternoons discussing the family business, Leitz never once mentioned Wetzlar’s Jewish apprentices or their escape. Now, Knut was curious to learn more and agreed to help Smith search the Wetzlar archives.
A sprightly 70-year-old with watery blue eyes, Knut no longer resides at Haus Friedwart - “it is too big, too drafty”, he says - but he still keeps an office there and visits nearly every day. Designed by the German architect Bruno Paul, the white-stone mansion is an unusual blend of styles, boasting a grand colonnaded portico and loggia, as well as a reception room with a carved wooden staircase offset by a figure of Christ and busts of three generations of Leitz males. However, the house’s most striking feature is its location. Built on the slopes of a medieval fortification known as the Kalsmunt, it sits directly above and behind the old Leica factory, as if keeping watch on the goings on below.
The house’s grandeur notwithstanding, Knut says his grandfather was a man of simple tastes. “His own room was small and spartan. He had maybe two suits, and used to wear the same hat every day. He was very warm, very approachable. He hated to see people suffer. Mentally, he was my protector. I knew that if something was wrong or needed changing, I could go to my grandfather and he would do it immediately.”
In hindsight, Knut says it is not surprising that Gunther forbade Lipton to write about his father’s good works. “My grandfather never put it into so many words but the family credo was ‘do good, but do not speak about it.’ If he were here now he would hate all this talk.”
After the war, Germany was racked by soul-searching and recrimination. Who was a Nazi and who wasn’t? And could ordinary Germans have done more to stand up to Hitler and oppose anti-Semitism? Those tensions would have been especially acute in a small town like Wetzlar.
Then there was Leitz’s Nazi party membership. One of the first documents uncovered was a detailed statement prepared by Leitz for a denazification trial court in Wetzlar in 1947. Reading it, one is struck by how painful the process must have been for him. Leitz begins by pointing out that in 1933 he had stood as a candidate for the German State Party and had “violently” attacked the national socialists, describing Hitler’s Sturm Abteilung troops as “brown apes”. Leitz goes on to say that he never departed from a “fundamental democratic attitude”, employing Jews at his factory throughout the 1930s and helping them to escape abroad. These acts of defiance had provoked the suspicions of the Gestapo and made him an “object of indignation” in the Nazi party. It was only when the Nazis had threatened to sack his senior managers and take over his factory that Leitz reluctantly agreed to join the party in order to avoid, as he put it, “the most extreme scenario”.
With characteristic understatement he concludes: “I was not only a passive member but resisted actively against the Nazi tyranny as far as my means allowed.”
Perhaps part of what Gunther meant when he told Lipton that no one could know what Germans had done for the persecuted “within the limits of their ability” was that his father wasn’t all that proud of his record and didn’t think he was in a position, as Smith puts it, “to lord it over anyone”.
In the preface to his Booker-prize winning account of Schindler’s life, Schindler’s Ark, the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally writes that it is easy to avoid bathos when describing evil, malice being a staple of fictional and historical narratives. By contrast, “it is a risky enterprise to have to write of virtue”.
Part of the problem is that acts of virtue - what today we would term altruism - are rarely as straightforward as they seem. Is it altruism that prompts mothers to make sacrifices on behalf of their children, or is their behaviour better explained by what evolutionary biologists would call the selfish furtherance of their genes? Similarly, when philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet donate billions to disease research, is it simply the poor of Africa they are hoping to make feel better or does it offer them some comfort, too?
We will never know what drove Leitz to take the risks he did - like Schindler he does not lend himself to what Keneally calls “easy character headings” - but we do not have to look far to see where he got his morality. Born in Baden in 1843 to a staunch Protestant family, Leitz’s father, Ernst I, had been groomed for a life of the cloth. In 1865, however, he decided to train as a mechanic, moving to Wetzlar to work at Carl Kellner’s Optical Institute. When Kellner died four years later, Ernst I took over the business, and quickly proved to be a progressive and enlightened employer, setting up one of Germany’s first company health insurance schemes.
In this respect, if not others, it seems that Ernst Leitz II, who joined the company in 1906, was very much his father’s son. Leitz made a point of learning the names of all Ernst I’s employees by heart. And when Ernst I died in 1920, and three years later hyperinflation threatened to erode employees’ earnings, Ernst II printed his own form of currency at Wetzlar and imported groceries from Denmark so that his workers wouldn’t go hungry.
The Leitz family’s reputation for humanitarianism might explain why, when Paul Rosenthal began to suffer anti-Semitism at school, Nathan appealed directly to Leitz, who enrolled Paul in a three-year sales training programme. And it also explains why, when the Nazis forced Paul’s father, Nathan, to close his corn business, Leitz rented warehouse space from him at a fair market price. The rental income eventually enabled the whole family to join Paul in New York.
Rosenthal concludes his 1947 letter by praising Leitz for the “sincerity” of his ideals, and tells him that his “exemplary works will exist for unlimited years to come”. He also wonders: “How many innumerable young Jewish people from Giessen, Frankfurt and Darmstadt did you train in your photo business during the Hitler period in order that they were able to earn a living on emigration without taking into account whether your assistance pleased the Nazis or not?”
It is a good question and one Smith has spent many hours puzzling. But in spite of publishing an article in the Leica Historical Society of America newsletter appealing for more apprentices and their families to come forward, Smith has so far been unable to substantiate Lipton’s claim to have witnessed as many as “20 to 30” refugees arriving at Leica New York “every few weeks”. Smith’s conclusion is that Leitz did not set out to be a hero but simply responded “as and when something came up”. In other words, there was nothing calculating about his altruism.
But a wider question is why the Nazis tolerated Leitz’s activities at all. One answer is that in the 1930s, Hitler was desperate for hard currency, and Leica, with its lucrative overseas sales of microscopes and cameras, was an important source of foreign export earnings. This could also explain why, when Turk’s letter of recommendation to Enfield was intercepted by the Gestapo, Leitz was able to negotiate his release. (The Gestapo agreed, but only on condition that Turk resign from the company.) But Smith believes the main reason was that the Nazis feared that without Leitz at the helm, there was a danger production at the company would collapse, threatening their ability to source optics for the military.
“Ernst Leitz was utterly revered by his employees. The Nazis knew that without him, the whole sense of motivation, cohesiveness and precision at the factory would be gone,” Smith says. He has meanwhile discovered numerous other examples of Leitz’s good work, involving not only Jewish employees, but also Jewish members of the wider Wetzlar community as well as non-Jews related to Jews by marriage.
And just as Leitz was programmed to act in the way he did by his upbringing and the dictates of his conscience, so, it seems, was his daughter. In 1942, the first Ukrainian slave labourers began arriving at Wetzlar. Appalled by their living conditions, Elsie Leitz began visiting the camp and agitating for better food and clothing. Her visits irritated the Gestapo, and in May 1943, when the half-Jewish wife of a local optical-maker was caught attempting to flee across the German border into Switzerland, suspicion immediately fell on Elsie. Indeed, she had given the woman a map showing her the route across the border, as well as forbidden Swiss francs; Elsie was arrested and taken to Frankfurt. There is also evidence the Gestapo suspected Leitz of being in on the plot (the woman, Hedwig Palm, had hidden for several weeks at his sister’s house in Munich), but couldn’t prove it.
It took Leitz three months to secure Elsie’s release - a period that took its toll on both of them. Elsie was badly treated by the Gestapo while her father, by then in his 70s, suffered a stroke. Elsie spent the remainder of the war a virtual prisoner at Haus Friedwart. In a subsequent account of her arrest and imprisonment, she wrote that “it was the law of humanitarianism” that had provoked her into coming to the aid of her Jewish neighbour, and she “felt no reason for regret”.
Later, she threw herself into good works, supporting Dr Albert Schweitzer’s healing of the sick in Africa and promoting Germany’s efforts at reconciliation. Leitz, meanwhile, got on with what he did best: making cameras.
I ask Smith to show me a picture of Leitz in later life, after his secret transports, after his daughter’s imprisonment, after US troops arrived in Wetzlar and liberated his factory. The Californian flicks through his slide carousel before alighting on a favourite. Taken on Leitz’s 80th birthday, it shows an elderly, frail man walking into the Wetzlar factory on the arm of Dr Theodor Heuss, president of the Federal Republic of Germany. Leitz’s face is in shadow, obscured by an oversized trilby hat. The year was 1951. Five years later he was dead.
Now that Smith knows the lengths that Leitz went to help Wetzlar’s Jews and what he and Elsie suffered, why does he think Leitz never mentioned his efforts to Knut?
Smith doesn’t reply immediately but walks over to the window and parts the curtains. From his living room you can see clear across northwest London. “Perhaps it’s like some survivors of the Shoah,” he says eventually. “They rarely discussed it with their children either for fear they would drown in it. When you’ve been through a trauma like that you just want to get on with living life.”
LEITZ, CAMERA, ACTION GETTING TO SAFETY IN THE US
At 5am on February 12 1938 Kurt Rosenberg rushed upstairs to the deck of the Hansa.
The Hamburg-America Line steamer was about to dock at the Hudson River pier, and Rosenberg, a 22-year-old camera mechanic from Wetzlar, was eager to capture the moment on his new Leica.
“The boat was sailing at half-power into the New York harbour,” he later wrote to his parents in Frankfurt. “Right and left, thousands of lights, and in front of us the skyscrapers of Manhattan.” Unfortunately it was too dark to take pictures and the moment went unrecorded. But Rosenberg was able to take numerous other photographs in the US, making his life the best documented of any Leitz refugee.
Rosenberg was brought to Wetzlar by his father Georg on April 25 1933, five weeks after Hitler’s rise to power. While there, he learned how to repair microscopes and cameras. At first, Georg, a Jewish banker and German war hero, refused to accept the need to emigrate. But in 1938, with the Nazi persecution of Jews intensifying, he relented.
Leitz immediately furnished Kurt Rosenberg with a letter of introduction to the New York office and a ticket for his passage. Like other Leitz refugees, Rosenberg also received a new Leica camera as security in case of financial difficulty - hard currency couldn’t be taken out of Germany, but Leicas, which were readily exchangeable for cash, could.
On arrival in New York, Rosenberg was taken to the Leica showroom on Fifth Avenue, where he was put to work in the repair room. However, the following day Customs paid him a surprise visit - despite Rosenberg having the correct papers, there were evidently suspicions about him - and he was subsequently transferred to Leitz’s San Francisco office “since not only my fate but also that of the company was on the line”.
By now the situation in Germany was worsening, and Rosenberg began sending urgent telegrams and affidavits to his parents. On November 9 1938 - Kristallnacht - the Nazis looted Jewish business across Germany and Georg was thrown in Buchenwald. Although he was later released due to his age, in 1941 he was deported to the Lodz ghetto, where he died in 1942.
In 1943 Rosenberg volunteered for the US Army. His ambition was to be an air-reconnaissance photographer but, on April 20 1944 the troopship on which he was travelling was torpedoed in the Mediterranean, and he was killed along with 500 other US serviceman. He was just 28.
In all, Rosenberg left more than 1,000 photographs recording his journey from Wetzlar and his new life in the US - an invaluable archive now in the possession of his family.