The Hidden Leica Story - part 2
by George Gilbert

Historian George Gilbert follows up on his "Hidden Leica Story"

George Gilbert is a natural story teller with twenty plus books to his credit. I first 'discovered' George at our Christmas 1976 meeting. Copies of his new book, Collecting Photographica were on sale. I met George in person almost 20 years later at our October 1995 meeting. George presented a short whimsical history of photography's earliest years with a tongue in cheek tale about the first person to be photographed.

This time out, George's subject was far more serious and extensively documented. To set the stage, he passed a 1940s Leica around so those unfamiliar with the feel and quality of the famous camera could better understand its significance to photography. The Leica was joined by a handful of prints giving background to his presentation.

Gilbert by Lansdale
Photo by
Robert Lansdale

First Person to be Photographed The Apprentice P-38 Lightning Photo Aircraft The Photo League

A young photographer joins the Army.
George left college in the 1930s to become a commercial studio apprentice. When the US joined the allies in WW2 George signed up. With his college aptitude for mathematics and his hands-on experience in photography, he was reassigned to the USAF to train military staff in the art of aerial mapping. At the time, a German patent described a faster way to map heights using aerial photography and mathematics. The urgency was due to a lack of topographical maps of the Pacific area due to become a battle zone. After his last class, George was assigned to one of the photographic field teams. The ill-fated team died when the ship was sunk.

Out of the Frying Pan...
Fortunately George was pulled from the team at the last minute for another assignment. This time to be dropped on Omaha beach the day before the famous June 6, 1944 D-Day assault to measure the beach area. He was spared from this extremely risky task when the survey project was abruptly shelved by the Army Corps of Engineers and their attention shifted to the Manhattan project.

A Writer is Born.
Beginning in 1950, George spent 30 years writing for the popular photographic press. He was so prolific (at times he had articles in various magazines at the same time) he resorted to using a variety of pen names. At last count he has had over 400 articles published. Along the way he came across the 'Freedom Train' story.

Leitz Kleinfilm-Kamera 'Leica' Assembling Leicas rare Leica 250 Reporter Fortune Magazine Oct 1936

The Leica and Minicam mania.
Once his background was established, George told some anecdotes illustrating the impact of the Leica on photography. The Leica was first announced at the 1924 Leipzig Fair, shifting emphasis from the large cameras of the 1930s to the era of the miniature camera. The story of the Hungarian photographer Endre Friedmann, was typical. The young Friedmann attended a talk by Trotsky in 1932. The communist icon was famous for avoiding any attempt to take his photograph. At the talk, Friedman moved right to the front row. Using his new Leica, he was for all practical purposes invisible since he was without a large format camera, the mark of a photographer. Two days later his photo hit the press and Friedmann went on to become famous as a war photographer using "Robert Capa" as his name - taken from its similarity to the name of his favourite American movie director, Frank Capra. See TIME EUROPE Jul 8 2002. Note that both the spelling of Capa's birth name and how he chose the name 'Capa' vary depending on the source quoted.

I first saw Fortune Magazine for Oct 1936 and the article on the 'Minicam boom' at the Bibliotheque in Montreal over 40 years ago. A copy of the magazine is offered for sale on the internet by Old Imprints.

Leica Freedom Train Illustration

The Leica Freedom Train.
The Leitz family, owners of the famous optical firm in Wetzlar were Protestants. The family supported one of the democratic political parties in Germany at the time the National Socialists gained control of the country and began their well documented punishment of their Jewish countrymen. With the increasing intrusion of the Nazi government into business and social life, Leitz quietly began assessing the effect of government policy on its staff and German dealers, many of who were Jewish. Leitz began a practice of buying back stock from affected dealers, reselling it to any who emigrated to America. From there they began 'hiring' people associated with the firm who were at grave risk. Each new employee was quickly trained to use and demonstrate the Leica. After training, Leitz applied for an exit permit to send the new 'employee' to America to assist in generating sales.

In America, the Leitz subsidiary worked hard to find jobs for these emigrants - some with little or no English skills. It was said that an editor of the Leica Magazine called every Leitz account in America to help place the new employees. It was also rumoured that Leitz paid full salary for three months and half salary for the next three months. In all, it is estimated some 300 or more people benefited from the program. To the German government, the program was transferring skilled salesmen to America to generate hard currency sales.

searching for beneficiaries Photographica Article by George Gilbert Photo International Article by Norman Lipton Leica Photography Magazine Shekel Magazine

Telling the tale.
Long after the war ended, the story of the Freedom Train program was first proposed to Reader's Digest with its 12 million plus readers. Leitz directors regretfully refused permission as long as the people involved were still alive and possibly at risk of retaliation. By 1987 the last of the protagonists had died and George wrote a small half page article that was published in various photographic chronicles. A decade later, the story was briefly covered in the book Illustrated World Wide Who's Who of Jews in Photography (see review in the May 1997 issue of Photographic Canadiana). George sent an abbreviated version of the story to the various photographic societies for publication - we published the story in our May 2002 issue. Unfortunately, efforts to find anyone with relatives who were helped by Leitz has failed to turn up anyone to date.

Article by Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith Leica Freedom Train brochure Norman Lipman Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith

The Freedom Train story and the role played by Norman Lipton, George Gilbert, and Rabbi Frank Dabba Smith to bring it to light, are covered in Rabbi Smith's 2002 pamphlet The Leica Freedom Train published by the American Photographic Historical Society in New York. A copy was provided to each attendee at this presentation.

George Gilbert with Robert Wilson Post meeting discussions Post meeting discussions

All images were taken with a Nikon Coolpix 990 digital camera and adjusted in Photoshop CS. The images are © 2004 the Photographic Historical Society of Canada unless otherwise noted. The images and content of the presentation are © 2004 George Gilbert.

Questions? Please contact me at

Robert Carter

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