Leitz Factory Damage March 1945
Updated: Dec 18, 2022
This picture was taken on March 29th 1945 as the U.S. 99th Infantry division enters Wetzlar. It shows a platoon of infantry of B company, 3rd battalion, 393rd Regiment, first element of 99th Infantry Division carrying rifles walking along the streets outside the Leitz optical factory, while citizens carrying their belongings walk along the street and watch on silently.
Leica camera manufacturing continued to deteriorate throughout 1944/45 as the allies carried out air attacks and heavily bombed Wetzlar. Shortages of raw materials disrupted production and Leitz also saw a gradual reduction in skilled workers, as they were assigned to militarily more important work and several highly skilled toolmakers and engineers were transferred to the German atomic bomb project, 'Uranverein' (uranium club). I wonder if any of them were transferred 200km away, to the experimental reactor at Stadtilm, which alarmingly was constructed in a cellar beneath the Stadtilm middle school!
Thankfully, the bombs missed the main factory buildings but this picture shows that most of the windows were blown out but damage was minimal and most of the machinery and equipment was intact. Fortunately for Leitz, the factory was located in the American zone so none of the equipment had been destroyed or taken away. It was well understood that such a factory was no risk militarily and should be protected as part of the post-war reconstruction. Not so for factories that fell inside the Soviet zone, which were ruthlessly pillaged or damaged.
Leitz was a very progressive company that offered workers a good living wage, sick-pay, pensions and health care, virtually unknown throughout Europe at that time, but the Leitz family understood exactly what was coming when Hitler became chancellor. So, at great risk to himself and his family, who eventually attracted the attention of the gestapo, he covertly took on a stream of Jewish apprentices and assisted those and other Jewish workers and colleagues to leave Germany before the borders were officially closed. The only way Leitz could protect these people was to get them out of the country by arranging transfers to his overseas offices, usually under the pretext of training in the UK, USA, Hong Kong and France. This chapter in the Leica story became known as the Leitz Freedom Train.
For balance, in 1998, Leica Camera (and a number of other German companies), were confronted with a lawsuit from holocaust survivors, that accused the company of profiting from slave labour. Leica Camera answered the charges by maintaining that Ernst Leitz had actually rescued several jews from transportation to concentration camps and had been jailed by the nazis for helping jews.