The Leica is the pioneer 35mm camera. It is a German product; precise, minimalist, and utterly  efficient. Behind it is Ernst Leitz's optics company, a family- owned, socially-oriented firm that during the Nazi era acted with   uncommon grace and generosity. 

Leitz Optics was founded in 1869, and showed an enlightened social commitment toward its workers.  Very early in the company's history the Leitz family  introduced pensions, sick leave and health insurance because it depended on its work force of highly skilled employees, many of whom were Jewish.

The Leitz family therefore had a warm and caring relationship with their employees.  In 1933 when Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, Ernst Leitz II, son of the founder and head of the company from 1920  to 1956, began receiving frantic calls from Jewish associates, asking for help to get them and their families out of Germany.

To assist his Jewish workers and colleagues, Leitz established what has become known as the "Leica Freedom Train," a program allowing Jews to leave Germany in the disguise of Leitz employees being assigned overseas. Employees, retailers, their family members and their friends were "assigned" to Leitz offices in Europe, Asia and the United States. This program intensified after Kristallnacht in November 1938.

German Jewish refugees who were being “stationed overseas” went to the local Leitz office, where they were helped to find jobs,  and each new arrival was   given a Leica camera. The refugees were even paid a stipend until they could find work. The "Leica Freedom Train" was at its height in 1938 and early 1939, delivering groups of refugees to Leica sites around the world every few weeks until the invasion of Poland in September 1939, when Germany closed its borders.

Meanwhile the Leitz company, being a German brand, produced range-finders and other optical systems for the German military. Also, the Nazi regime urgently required currency from abroad, and Leitz's company, an internationally acclaimed brand, helped supply it.

But even so, members of the Leitz family and firm suffered for their good works. A Leitz executive, Alfred Turk, was jailed for helping Jews escape Germany and was only freed after the payment of a large bribe.

Leitz's daughter, Elsie Kuhn-Leitz, was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo after she was caught at the border helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland. She was eventually freed but again fell under suspicion when she attempted to improve the living conditions of more than 700 Ukrainian slave labourers, all of them women, who had been assigned to work in the plant during the 1940s.

After the war, Elsie Kuhn-Leitz received numerous honors for her humanitarian efforts, among them the Officier d'honneur des Palmes Académiques from France in 1965, the Aristide Briand Medal from the   European Academy in the 1970s, and the Courage to Care Award from the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission.

The Leitz family wanted no publicity for its heroic efforts. Only after the last member of the Leitz family had died did the "Leica Freedom Train" finally come to light. Due to the story finally being published Ernst Leitz II was posthumously awarded the Courage To Care Award