Leica Freedom Train

An inspiring story of commitment to diversity, inclusion, respect, and human decency

This is a story about the past and the present. A story that shows how deeply our shared purpose—Helping Realize Life’s Potential—is embedded in our corporate DNA. It’s a story about the founder of Leica and his legacy. 

We’ve shared this story before, and we share it again now, as Danaher’s commitment to building a diverse and inclusive corporate culture that shows equal respect, acceptance, and opportunity for all has never been more relevant than at this moment. Long before the four words of our shared purpose were coined, Ernst Leitz was living them.

As you may know, Leica was founded in Germany in 1869 by Ernst Leitz, a pioneer in the optics industry whose company developed the first camera—The Leica (Lei for Leitz + ca for camera)—which became the industry standard for 35mm photography. Today, Leica is run as four independent companies: Leica Camera, Leica Geosystems, Leica Biosystems and Leica Microsystems.

Ernst Leitz GmbH, as it was known back then, had a tradition of enlightened behavior toward its workers, many of whom were Jewish. Pensions, sick leave, and health insurance were instituted early on at the company. When Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, Ernst Leitz II (son of the founder and head of the company from 1920 to 1956) began receiving calls from Jewish associates asking for help in getting them and their families out of the country. As Christians, Leitz and his family were immune to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg laws restricting the movement and activities of Jews.

To help his Jewish workers and colleagues, Leitz quietly established what has become known as “The Leica Freedom Train”: a covert means of helping Jews to escape Germany under the guise of being assigned to new roles overseas. Employees, retailers, family members, even friends of family members were “assigned” to Leitz sales offices in France, Britain, Hong Kong, and the United States.

For several years, German employees disembarked from the ocean liner SS Bremen every few weeks at New York piers and made their way to the Leitz offices in Manhattan. There, executives quickly found them jobs in the photographic industry, a migration that produced designers, repair technicians, salespeople, marketers, and writers for the photographic press. Around each new arrival’s neck hung the symbol of freedom: a new Leica camera. 

All told, The Leica Freedom Train—a stealth humanitarian mission—helped hundreds of endangered Jews escape to America before Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and closed its borders.

How was Leitz able to accomplish such a feat? First, the Leitz corporation produced range-finders and other optical systems for the German military. In addition, the Nazi government desperately needed hard currency from abroad and Leitz's single biggest market for optical goods was the United States. Furthermore, Ernst Leitz II was utterly revered by his employees. The Nazis understood that without him at the helm, the factory would lose morale, motivation, cohesiveness, and precision—all of which they could not afford.

Of course, the valiant efforts of Leitz family members and their colleagues did not come without consequences. A top executive, Alfred Turk, was jailed for working to help Jews and a large payment was required for his release. Leitz II’s daughter, Elsie Kühn-Leitz, was imprisoned by the Gestapo after being caught helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland. She was eventually freed. 

Humble heroes, neither Elsie nor her father or any other family members ever sought attention for their courageous deeds. Even close family members were unaware of their efforts. Leitz II’s son Günther once said: “My father did what he could because he felt responsible for his employees and their families and neighbors. He was only doing what any decent person would have done in his position.”

After the war, Kühn-Leitz received numerous honors for her and her family’s humanitarian efforts, including the Officier d’honneur des Palms Academic from France and the Aristide-Briand-Medal. Leitz II was posthumously awarded the Courage to Care Award from the Anti-Defamation League in 2007.

Nearly 90 years ago, the Leitz family and company was devoted to helping its associates realize life’s potential. A story of social courage, moral conviction, humanity, and humility, it is not only a story of the past but also of the present, as reflected in the many authentic conversations with our diverse group of colleagues around the world in recent days and weeks.

Maybe most importantly, it is a story of action. 

Interested in learning more?