Leica and the Jews

My friend Joe Grittani recently sent me this article posted by Mr. Alan Currie. Joe is well aware of my love of Leica cameras and this article only made me love them more. Given my post of April 16 titledThe Klan in Madison County, and that this is Good Friday, I felt it important to post this story. It is gleaned from a book titled The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train by Frank Dabba Smith. While it is clear from the recent events in Missouri that racism, stupidity, and hatred are still, and always will be, with us. It is equally true there will always be good people willing to risk everything to fight them. As Mr. Currie remarks at the end of this post: Memories of the righteous should live on.

LEICA AND THE JEWS- A true World War 2 story


The Leica is the pioneer 35mm camera. It is a German product – precise, minimalist, and utterly efficient.

Behind its worldwide acceptance as a creative tool was a family-owned, socially oriented firm that, during the Nazi era, acted with uncommon grace, generosity and modesty. E. Leitz Inc., designer and manufacturer of Germany ‘s most famous photographic product, saved its Jews.

And Ernst Leitz II, the steely-eyed Protestant patriarch who headed the closely held firm as the Holocaust loomed across Europe, acted in such a way as to earn the title, “the photography industry’s Schindler.”

As soon as Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, Ernst Leitz II began receiving frantic calls from Jewish associates, asking for his 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, which restricted the movement of Jews and limited their professional activities.

To help his Jewish workers and colleagues, Leitz quietly established what has become known among historians of the Holocaust as “the Leica Freedom Train,” a covert means of allowing Jews to leave Germany in the guise of Leitz employees being assigned 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, Leitz’s activities intensified after the Kristallnacht of November 1938, during which synagogues and Jewish shops were burned across Germany.

Before long, German “employees” were disembarking from the ocean liner Bremen at a New York pier and making their way to the Manhattan office of Leitz Inc., where executives quickly found them jobs in the photographic industry.

Each new arrival had around his or her neck the symbol of freedom – a new Leica camera.

The refugees were paid a stipend until they could find work. Out of this migration came designers, repair technicians, salespeople, marketers and writers for the photographic press.

Keeping the story quiet The “Leica Freedom Train” was at its height in 1938 and early 1939,delivering groups of refugees to New York every few weeks. Then, with the invasion of Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, Germany closed its borders.

By that time, hundreds of endangered Jews had escaped to America, thanks to the Leitzes’ efforts. How did Ernst Leitz II and his staff get away with it?

Leitz, Inc. was an internationally recognized brand that reflected credit on the newly resurgent Reich. The company produced cameras, range-finders and other optical systems for the German military. Also, the Nazi government desperately needed hard currency from abroad, and Leitz’s single biggest market for optical goods was the United States.

Even so, members of the Leitz family and firm suffered for their good works. A top executive, Alfred Turk, was jailed for working to help Jews and freed only after the payment of a large bribe.

Leitz’s daughter, Elsie Kuhn-Leitz, was imprisoned by the Gestapo after she was caught at the border, helping Jewish women cross into Switzerland . She eventually was freed but endured rough treatment in the course of questioning. She also fell under suspicion when she attempted to improve the living conditions of 700 to 800 Ukrainian slave laborers, all of them women, who had been assigned to work in the plant during the 1940s. (After the war, Kuhn-Leitz received numerous honors for her humanitarian efforts, among them the Officer d’honneur des Palms Academic from France in 1965 and the Aristide Briand Medal from the European Academy in the 1970s.)

Why has no one told this story until now? According to the late Norman Lipton, a freelance writer and editor, the Leitz family wanted no publicity for its heroic efforts. Only after the last member of the Leitz family was dead did the “Leica Freedom Train” finally come to light.

It is now the subject of a book, “The Greatest Invention of the Leitz Family: The Leica Freedom Train,” by Frank Dabba Smith, a California-born Rabbi currently living in England.

Thank you for reading the above, and if you feel inclined as I did to pass it along to others, please do so. It only takes a few minutes.

Memories of the righteous should live on.

The Klan in Madison County


KKK Rally, near Wolf Laurel, Madison County, NC 1976

With the arrest this week of the racist, anti-Semite, Frazier Glenn Miller, for the murder of three innocents in Overland Park, MO, I was reminded of a Klan rally in Madison County many years ago. I had originally thought I had photographs of Miller at the rally, but I was wrong. He was not in any of my images, but my memory of the language used that night was consistent with the vitriol Miller espoused throughout his life.

KKK Rally, near Wolf Laurel, Madison County, NC 1976

It was a scary night. My friend, John Rountree, and I had driven deep into the mountains, hoping for photographs, but not expecting to be let into the rally. We were, and at first, it gave the appearance of a church supper with chicken dinners being sold by a klan auxiliary group. When it began raining, everyone moved inside a barn for the toxic message. The barn turned out to be a permanent cock-fighting arena, complete with bleachers and a concession stand.

The words were what we expected. At one point the klan chaplain (a laughable title if there ever was one) from Greensboro brought children into the ring with him to illustrate the reasons we should resist "the Jewish media conspiracy and their nigger shock troops." Those words have stayed with me for all these years, as his glare was fixed on us as he spoke them.  

Madison County, 1976

As we were leaving we overheard talk of "dealing with" an interracial couple living in Mars Hill and we parked our car close to the people's house in hopes of producing evidence. But the Klan, ever consistent in their cowardice, never showed up. 

Now, almost forty years after that event in Madison, one would like to believe that people like Miller and his ilk have passed into history, that we would have realized that hatred and ignorance should play no role in our society, or any society. Sadly, what I realize is my own naivety. 


Marshall Metal


Jamie Paul, Josie and Greg Moser of the metal band, Crook, in downtown Marhsall, 2014

They handed out free earplugs at the drink table.
A sure sign it would be louder than anything the old man had ever heard.
It was.

For him, a beat that didn’t translate into what he thought of as music.
Shrieks and wails and notes held maybe a might too long.
The crowd loved it. What did he know?

Left, Josie Mosser, Right, Greg Mosser, of Crook.

Guests on American Bandstand would have said,
“It’s okay, but you can’t dance to it.”
I might give it a five out of ten, the old man thought.

But the others, oh, the others.
Mesmerized, heads bobbing, eyes glassed.
Hands clutching warm PBR, as if a modern communion.

Marshall, 2014.

Marshall, 2014.

It was all so new to the man and
He wasn’t sure he liked it.
Still, there was no denying the power, or the appeal to some.

He thought, how could this be in this small town?
Legendary home to ballads and old-time and bluegrass.
A place where the sidewalks roll up at nightfall.

Hot Mess Monster playing in downtown Marshall, 2014.

It’s evolution, he thought.
New people, new ideas, changing times.  
And I’ve got nothing against change.

But, what did he know?


ShatterZone - a Fiction: Pickin' Maters with McKinley


McKinley Massey, Big Pine, 1981.


We don’t start until 9:30 or 10,
late in the day for farm work.
Even then, the plants are heavy with dew,
our clothes soaked before we finish the first row.

It’s the usual crew.
Mckinley and his two daughters, their husbands,
a neighbor and his elderly parents.
And a few hippie types, I don’t know why.

The men drink warm PBR throughout the morning.
How do they do it and still work?
They do.
Never missing a beat. 

Finished Picking, from left, Chuck Durdin, Jeff Johnson, Mckinley Massey, Ish Massey, Charles Massey, Jerry Reed, Big Pine, 1981.

Ish, the old guy, is mostly there for the beer.
He smokes a pipe, which he packs with a mix of PA and pot.
He doesn’t pick many maters, but he’s funny
and everyone likes having him around.

There’s a constant banter in the field.
The daughters are hilarious.
The talk occupies the mind,
distracting you from your reality.

Culling and Cleaning, Big Pine, 1981.

Hot, muggy, and dirty best describes the work.
Maters coated with a toxic layer of chemical poisons.
Only way you can grow ‘em around here, McKinley says.
My eyes itch and I cough a lot.

He’s a bit of a renegade, McKinley is,
maybe contrarian is better.
Beyond skinny, consumptive almost, but stout,
with long ropey muscles and huge hands.

Picking done, we go to the house for dinner.
Pearl, his wife, has laid out a feed.
After, a short rest, and then back outside,
culling, cleaning and packing.

Dinnertime, Big Pine, 1981

I do this for a couple of summers,
two days a week throughout the season.
At first I think of it as school, learning ways of man.
By the end it’s more about being a neighbor.


A Portrait is . . .

After yesterday's verbosity, I'm returning to basics today - a portrait of mine from 1984 and two quotes from one of my earliest and strongest influences. 


A Camera is a tool for learning how to see . . . 
Dorothea Lange, ca. 1956

Cherokee Stickball Player at the First Cherokee Tribal Reunion since the Trail of Tears, Red Clay, GA 1984

                A Portrait is a lesson on how one human being should approach another.
 - Dorothea Lange, 1965


The Sweetest Boy


Frank, foreground, with his sister Beulah, left, and his mother, Tao, right.

It’s been almost four weeks since we lost Frank.
A too fast car.
An inadvertent leap.
His favorite time of day became his last.
He died in my arms.

He was the sweetest boy.
Not quite three.
Already faithful and protective.
Bashful and funny. Quiet and patient.
Content to hang in the studio.

On late afternoon walks, his long strings of fur
would glow golden in the light.
Running, running, running
at the first hint of a scent.
Always coming back to me, just to check in.

A neighbor hit him.
Not intentionally of course.
Claimed they never saw him.
I have no reason to doubt this.
But they will remain for me the person who killed my dog.

I’ve walked that walk more days than not over the last twenty years.
But now, one direction takes me to Frank’s last breath.
The other to the home of the person who hit him.
In a moment, I lost the dog I perceived as life’s companion
And the walk that had given me time of pleasure and solace.

I like to think I live in a slow place.
Where a person can walk with animals or children.
Without fear. Only with openness and calm.
Trusting that everyone has the same sense of place.
It sucks when the speed of the outside world intrudes.

Frank is in our garden now.
Next to Zimmy, just over from Leroy and Baby Scruff.
A quiet spot he knew well. 
Where we're sure to think about him
when we harvest our greens.



Burning Off the Lower Garden


PawPaw Creek, Madison County, NC 2014


I burned off the lower garden.
It’s a cleansing for me.
And for the garden, too.

I love the smell of the smoke.
Having it coat my clothing.
My hands black with the soot.

The garden is rid of dead grasses.
And dried stalks.
The black soil ready for the coming shoots.

I remember a time years ago.
A friend burning off his garden.
It got away from him.

A dry time, and a windy day.
What started small
Burned over 200 acres of forest land.

I was on a fire crew then and
We fought fire that day from noon ‘til 10p.
Traipsing the side of the mountain.

We cut fire line, but
We couldn’t do much in that wind.
But stay out of the way.

On the side of Stafford Nob.
Our friend emerges from the charred landscape.
Rake in hand, like an apparition exiting the storm.

Light and smoke.
Smoke and light.
I love what they do together.


One Roll, Two Pix

It was the same day at two different spots in Madison County - Hot Springs and Hopewell (don’t you just love that name). It was the same roll of film, two different exposures. But the pictures are so different from each other - illustrating the change taking place in the county at that time, change that continues to this day.

Hoy Shelton Family, Hopewell, Madison County, NC 1983

The first is a photograph of Hoy and Juanita Shelton and their family, with two neighbor men. They have just finished a day of hanging tobacco. In 1983, burley was still king in Madison County, the leading county producer of burley in the state, with hundreds of small farmers like the Sheltons depending on tobacco for cash income. But tobacco’s days were numbered, and in ensuing years it has played a steadily decreasing role in the county’s lifestyle and economy. Farmers like the Sheltons either moved onto other crops, or more likely, gave up farming altogether.

Girls with ET platter, Hot Springs, Madison County, NC 1983

The second photograph is of a group of teenage girls holding a platter they’d won at a small festival in Hot Springs. The platter has an image of ET on it. By 1983, Madison was firmly engaged in mainstream culture and had been for decades. Radio and TV, better roads, telephone, and a changing demographic brought new values to the community, so an image from a popular movie shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me. Yet still I was struck by the availability and acceptance of mainstream culture in the county.

It’s the pairing of the photographs that I really like. The image of place they offer – a place moving away from a tradition that had sustained it for many years and toward an image of an unknown, and otherworldly, future.

ShatterZone - a Fiction


Jeff Johnson and John Henderson Moving Tobacco to the Casing House, Big Pine, Madison County, NC, 1978

It seems so long ago.
And I suppose it was.
When we were new to this place.
And the place new to us.

Not yet knowing how to act,
Or what to say.
How to be a good neighbor?
What it means to be in a community.

We offer help.
It’s clear they need it.
Children have moved off.
And the Mexicans have yet to arrive.

I help also to learn the place, and test myself.
To see if I could be all day in a field, 90 degrees,
Sweating and sticky from the tar.
Me of the soft hands and clerk’s body.

In those days, help meant tobacco.
It’s what was here. Lots of it.
The lifeblood of the county.
Everyone had a hand in it.

Working with a group, there wasn’t a better time.
Talking, laughing, teasing, forming a bond.
And the tobacco we cut . . . At the end of the day,
We’d marvel at what we accomplished.



ShatterZone - A Fiction


Marion and Dennis Chandler Heading into the Rice Cove, Madison County, NC 1978

We’re going to cook and heat the house with wood. My friends across the mountain in Sodom are a family of loggers and they have a sawmill and an excess of wood. They offer a truckload of firewood as a welcoming gift. One Saturday we bounce up the side of a mountain on the back of a flat-bed truck, barely able to hold on. We cut an enormous load of mixed hardwoods, which we load onto the back of the truck. Some of the sawed pieces are huge, and heavy, and I wonder how long it will take me to bust them into burnable size. When we go to pull out, the truck is mired in the soft ground and won’t budge. We unload it, piece by piece, move the truck a few feet, and reload the wood. Everyone gets a good laugh. I was exhausted by the double effort.


PawPaw Lost a Neighbor


Wayne Uffelman at Blue Hill Farm, PawPaw, Madison County, NC 2011.

No one died. But a long-term member of our community did sell his place and move. Wayne Uffelman had lived at Blue Hill Farm on Upper PawPaw for the last thirty-seven years. Most people knew him, or at least, of him. He farmed - tobacco at first, but after the tobacco buyout, he  switched to chickens and organic vegetables, which he sold at local markets. He also produced grits, cornmeal, and flour from his own mill. I thought his grits were the best I’ve ever had. Lately, he has been getting back to his true love - carving. He’s been doing a series of spoons and utensils to go with the grits, which are all replete with a carved heart, or owl, or snake at the top of the handle. But his real skill is as a bird carver and his move will allow him the opportunity to concentrate on that.

I’ve known Wayne a long time now. We met a couple of years after each of our arrivals in the mid-1970s. It has not always been the easiest of relationships, I think we’d both say that. But for many years now, he’s been a great neighbor and friend - always there to lend a hand, or tractor, or back, or his knowledge on any number of things. We’ll miss him in the hood.

Wayne Uffelman holding his "Chickenhawk" Walking Stick, PawPaw, Madison County, NC 2014.


Shu Sign


PawPaw, Madison County, NC 2014

For a time, Kate and Shu lived in our barn.

They planted a garden and tended the animals.

They mended fences and mucked stalls.

They left a footprint.

At some point, while walking to my workspace,

also in the barn, I noticed this shoe.

Ah, I thought at once, it’s Shu’s mailbox,

but not a very practical one.

Then, I understood it to be a mark, a totem.

A Kilroy Was Here moment.

A Sign of Shu, meant for the ages.

Leather, nailed to a locust post.

Who knows how long it will be there?

It's history was as half of a pair.

A flower bloomed from the other until the dogs claimed it as their own.

Chewed and carried off, gone for a time, then rediscovered like a forgotten lover.

It finally came to rest, under a shrub, nourishing the soil,

a different ending than its crucified mate.   



It Could Happen Here


We’ve had an abundance of industrial disasters lately – a fertilizer plant fire in Texas, a train wreck in Canada that destroyed a town and killed 47 people, pipeline ruptures that poisoned wide swaths of farmland, and most recently, the chemical storage tank leak in West Virginia that poisoned the capital city’s water supply. One of the more egregious things about this last incident is the responsible company filed bankruptcy immediately after the spill, effectively absolving themselves of any liability. West Virginians have not only had to live with the direct effects of the spill and lack of water, but they will now have to pay for it too. The company’s name, Freedom Industries, is priceless - must mean the freedom to do whatever they want.

Derailed Norfolk Southern Train, Barnard, Madison County, NC 1978

I like to think we’re somewhat protected here in Madison County, but then I look around. Our portion of the French Broad River, that provides a significant economic boost to the county through recreation and tourism, is also downstream from industrial parks, water treatment plants and large farms. The Norfolk Southern rail line that parallels the river is a major conduit for coal and chemicals coming from Kentucky and West Virginia. A train derailment in Marshall or Hot Springs, or into the River could be catastrophic. Trucks on I-26 could be carrying most anything from hazardous wastes to petroleum products. Yet even with those hazards, our danger from industrial accidents, while worse than many places, is not nearly as bad as many others.

We’ve made the choice to use chemicals and fossil fuels and, despite our encouraging steps toward alternative energy sources, we’ll be burning coal and gas for a while longer. Since the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, we’ve intertwined our industrial worlds with our personal lives and it’s always been to the detriment of our communities and natural world. Until we decide our public and environmental health take precedence over the irresponsibility and profits of large corporations, I'm afraid we will see only an increase in the type of unnatural disasters we've been seeing lately.