Early last year, I reached out to my friend Andrew Stuart to ask about low-end Leica cameras that might offer an entry point for a curious newbie. I’d been shooting Canon for years but seeing Stu’s sharp, evocative Leica output didn’t catch my attention so much as grab it by the neck and roughly push me towards the Leica showroom. We hopped on the phone and the first thing he said to me was, “Forget about starter models, here are the ones you need to consider…” We bantered about lenses, functionalities and the various models and two weeks later, I was the proud and slightly intimidated owner of a Leica M 240 – an absolute monster of a camera packed into a cool little retro body that looks like something you’d see hanging around the neck of a Swiss tourist in 1950. It’s my favorite camera by a longshot and for street photography, it’s pure gold. Behold:
I recently came across a pretty amazing story about Ernst Leitz II, who, from 1920 through 1956 served as the head of Leica Camera, in Wetzlar, Germany. Frank Dabba Smith, a London rabbi and straight-up Leica geek, caught wind of Leitz’s amazing story and researched the ever-loving hell out of it, ultimately unearthing the camera man’s deeply-inspiring secret.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, Leitz quickly realized that Germany had allowed a complete psychopath into its highest echelon and long before most of his fellow Deutschlanders, he saw the writing on the wall. As the Nazis took over and the wave of anti-Semitism gathered force across Germany, Leitz understood the deadly stakes now in play for his many Jewish employees and he quietly began smuggling them out of the country, sending them off to satellite offices in the UK, the US, Hong Kong and France. He also took a string of young Jewish boys under his wing as apprentices and personally trained them in order to get them qualified for transfer to Leica showrooms in New York and other locations across the US, where they would be safe from the Nazi party’s grisly plan. It’s said that Ernst saved just under a hundred employees from concentration camps and almost certain death; tack on the families that these employees took with them and the number of lives saved by Leitz moves into the hundreds. Each refugee was given a Leica camera as a symbol of freedom.
As a result of Rabbi Smith’s fastidious research, the Anti-Defamation League presented Leitz’s granddaughter with its “Courage to Care” award, crediting Leitz with saving hundreds of lives and comparing him to Oskar Schindler. “Under considerable risk and in defiance of Nazi policy, Ernst Leitz took valiant steps to transport his Jewish employees and others out of harm’s way,” said Abraham Foxman, director of the ADL. “If only there had been more Oskar Schindlers, more Ernst Leitzs, then less Jews would have perished.”
Among the incalculable risks Leitz took (he occasionally secured the safety of employees through bribing local Nazi officials, implicitly exposing his operation), particularly notable is the amount of time he spent telling people about what he had done: none. Humble and private, Ernst Leitz refused to discuss his mission with his family or friends. Rabbi Smith noted, “He didn’t want to distinguish himself from the other citizens of Wetzlar. It wasn’t in his nature to talk of his own good deeds and he thought he was only doing what any decent person would have done in his position.” Hard to imagine in the age of social media that somebody would go to such courageous lengths to save his fellow man and keep it entirely to himself. When Leitz’s son Günther later tried to write an article about his father’s humanitarian efforts, Leitz balked at participating. Günther recalled, “He did what he did because he felt responsible for his workers, their families, for our neighbors in Wetzlar.”
Running across the back of my camera, in tiny black capital letters, a small strip of text reads: “LEICA CAMERA MADE IN GERMANY”. When I look at this now, I have a bit more appreciation for what I’m holding in my hands.
Here’s a cool little video that tells the story: