Simone : When we first met, I contacted you because you were working on a very interesting story then. Can you tell us what it was about ?
Frank Dabba Smith : The story is about how a very famous industrialist, Ernst Leitz, who was based in Wetzlar helped a lot of jewish people during the nazi regime. Jewish people, political opponents to the regime, young people, older people, and many of them made new lives over seas. I started the research in the late 1990ies, and it’s ongoing.
Simone : How did you start research on that topic ?
Frank Dabba Smith: I was studying at Berkley, I was 18 or 19 at the time. And I saw a book, the photography catalogue. And in it there was an interview with this man who was doing an interview for popular photography magazine, and there was a sentence in there how Ernst Leitz was helping all those jewish people. And I was too young, I just filed it away in my head. And then in the late 90ies, I was in NYC, and I saw another book that gave reference about what Lipton had said. And I thought : this time, I’m going to do something about it. And so I knew a man who was a great Leica collector, and I mentioned it, and he said : I know the grand sons Fax number, Ernst Leitzes grandson, Knut Kühn Leitz. And so I faxed him, and he agreed to meet me. And so I came to Wetzlar, not knowing what would happen at all, I was still young and very naive, and I meet this very respectable man. He was so welcoming, and he walked me to his home, and we talked for hours. And there was a nice connection. And he knew very little about what I was talking about. And I’d say the next period was my telling Knut Kühn Leitz what his family had done. He knew about his mother, but he knew very little about the rest, how these activities were ongoing from the beginning of the regime.
Simone : But how did you find out ? You just stumbled onto a few books ?
Frank Dabba Smith: Well, in the meantime, I’d been in touch with Norman Lipton, and I knew a few things from him, but the evidence was very shaky. It was from a journalistic point of view more a story, then from an academic point of view. And so Knut and I started to do more and more research together, and that took a number of years, and there was all this popular exposure, a bit of debate. And then I decided, the story needed an historic pursue. What was the context of the time, historically ? What pressures where people under, especially industrialists ? What were the great issues, the great debates ?The debate coercion versus complicity ? What was other companies doing ? And that gave me the context in which to place what Ernst Leitz was trying to do. Not to consider it an isolation. And also to know that in the nazi regime, there were ideologues, and also pragmatists. And to consider the dynamic within the regime itself. So how could a man like Ernst Leitz do what he was doing ? And this was giving me a sense of why and how.
Simone : Could you share that with us ?
Frank Dabba Smith: Certainly. Ernst Leitz was known to the regime, because he was a great supporter of the Weimar Republic. He was in the DDP, Deutsche Demokratische Partei, which later became the Staatspartei, he was very involved with the Schwarz-Rot-Gold, he was a Reichsbanner-Mann. He was also involved in local politics in Wetzlar. So the nazis knew about him, they knew he gave money and uniforms, that he was a member of the Reichsbanner. And the Reichsbanner of course was going around to find Nazis to beat up. And this was at the time when Hitler came to power, he started with that problem. And he was also known to be cosmopolitan, in his outlook. He did not adhere in any way to nazi racial ideas. And so early on, there’s a letter I have in which Carl Lewer, this official in Hessen, he denounces Ernst Leitz to Captain Patzeck, “This man has this political past, don’t order any military material from him.” Leitz had provided binoculars in the first world war, and nazis, as we know, were very interested in rearmament. And in 1935, there are documents about any single company that could possibly integrated in the industrial effort was reported on, investigated, and of course, Leitz was involved with this. And Leitz is making things for the military. And this is kind of a tight rope. There’s a constant tension with the nazi regime, either you’ll fill this orders, or we will overtake your company. And other companies face this dilemma, and it is a slippery slope. And it is easy for us, as we are sitting here as free people to make easy judgments.
But Leitz survived because his company was making certain items that the regime needed really badly. There were lots of things being made. But if you were making things in a certain category, things that were designed, in house and built by inhouse experts, that no one else makes, this is in some ways a strong position. There were artillery aiming devices that Leitz made, that were important. There were bigger companies such as items for using tanks at night time, for night time battle situations, which came incredibly important after the allies controlled the air space, so you didn’t bring your tanks out the day. And Leitz was able to get away with their past, and helping the jewish people, because the regime needed these items. The other items the regime needed crucially
was an exporting company, they were providing foreign currency, a lot of foreign currency, where in the later 1930ies the regime was just desperate for this. So here we see the pragmatists of the regime versus the ideologues.
Simone: When he was saving Jews, the nazi regime was aware of that ?
Frank Dabba Smith: Sure they were. They were aware of that. And we have to be careful here. The nazis wanted jews to leave, these activities are not grocely an opposition to the nazi policy, but Leitz is doing it in a very humane way. Which is a problem for the regime. So for example, in the early 1930ies, he is giving young jewish people long term apprenticeships in the factory ; We have examples of the work book, where these young jewish people are promoted, 1937/ 1938, to the level of fine mechanic. Promoting jews at this time was simply not done, and there it is stamped in the work book. Writing recommendations for these people to go overseas, that is not unknown we have other examples from other companies, paying for their passage overseas. A number of people. Making sure they have jobs with the american agencies for jews. The nazis didn’t like that at all. They wanted to present their foreign representatives of german companies wanted then to represent « german » values, and adhere to german racial ideas. So to greatest embarrassment of the regime there were Jews working out of this famous german company, in New York that was not liked at all. The nazis couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything directly about that, they knew about it, they didn’t like it and they exerted some pressure.
Now, this comes to a head just after Kristallnacht, November 1938. A very respected camera dealer with the name of Ahrenfeld, with shops in Essen, Frankfurt, Cologne, had his shops damaged in Kristallnacht. He and his brother were thrown into Buchenwald. And they come out. They have previously seen Ernst Leitz about liquidating their company so they could go to America. Leitz is in hospital in that time, they visit him in hospital in August 1938, and Leitz refers this to his commercial director, sales director, who’s name is Alfred Turk.
Alfred Turk writes a letter in support of the Ahrenfeld family. So this letter is seen by a gestapo spy who happens to work in the factory, and the letter is turned in, and Alfred Turk is arrested, as he composed this letter. And Ernst Leitz goes to Berlin, because he has a friend in the economic ministry. His friends name is Hans Humbert. Why are they friends ? Because in the 1920ies, Hans Humbert’s father had a factory in Wetzlar, and he was loosing his business, and so Leitz helped him. So, Humbert, despite being involved with the regime in the economic sector, has a personal loyalty to Leitz. So we learn that Leitz had this incredible range of relationships, the giving and receiving of help. So Hans Humbert organises this big meeting in Berlin, involving the pragmatists of the economics ministry, and the ideologues from the gestapo and so on. And they battle it out. And they agree that they will free Alfred Turk, on the condition that Leitz stops employing jews in his overseas agencies, and that he immediately fires Alfred Turk. And then through the increased efforts of Hans Humbert, it’s agreed that the matter of overseas employs will be discussed later … But it’s done in such a way that it never happens. The file sits on somebody’s desk and it never happens. Alfred Turk is fired, but he recieves his full salary as his pension, which the nazis knew, and didn’t like. So he goes to Munich, and after the war he starts to work again for Leitz part time. So we see here the dynamic within the regime. And Leitz was able to get by …
Simone: You have started your research in the early nineties. Over twenty years later, what do you think, how many people did Leitz rescue?
Frank Dabba Smith: We can say for sure there were somewhere between 60 and 80, that’s somehow the evidence. And we have various degrees of evidence and of course we want to corroborate everything. We are looking at these kinds of figures, there are maybe more. There were people that were helped in terms of long term employment and sent away, short term courses, there were dealers that were helped for instants. I have an example of a bank account opened in Israel and 1000 £ deposited in the name of Ernst Leitz. That was exactly the amount that was needed to get a visa from the British and settle down. That money has never been taken out, it’s still sitting there on a dormantaccount. I have various mysteries like that, that we don’t know, who was involved, and so on. But since the beginning, Leitz was helping the people according to their circumstances and what would be really be useful at the time.
Let me give you another example. A doctor in Wetzlar, Alfred Strauss. Who treated the poor and would never take any money. There was a time where was currency controls, where jews were able to take 4 – 7 % of their assets, this is in 1937/1938, Leitz bought Aron Strausses residential property. He paid him an amount that was at the commercial rate, instead of a very low price. And through the company, Leitz assured that every penny, every Pfennig of that amount was shipped to America. This was completely illegal. We have the actual sales documents that we retain in our archives. That were some activities that were really grocely illegal activities, but most of them it’s the humanity and the pattern that is a problem for the nazis.
But I would add just one thing. And that is we know now, that the nazis had a sense of public relations. One extreme example of course is the Rosenstrasse Women in Berlin in 1943. Leitz was much loved in Wetzlar, he liked nothing better to walk to the factory, to speak to ordinary people. He was like a Pfarrer, a pastor. And that was his manner, his mode of leadership. So people loved him. So if the nazis would do anything suspicious as getting rid of him, there would have been repercussions locally, that’s another part of the picture .
Simone: I’ve always been very intrigued: why have you been consecrating years, decades of your life to this story ?
Frank Dabba Smith: Partly it’s the photography angle. I’m a photographer, I exhibit my work, I’ve been using Leica since I’m a teenager. There’s a rational side, that has a lot to do with my ideals, with universal humanitarianism, ethics, a sense of what really counts is helping other people.
I’m terribly involved in the middle east, about water. I am working with Palestinians, Israelis, Jordanians, all together. A human being is a human being. And what Leitz did, during a dramatic, horrible time, is an example for me.
And of course there’s the question, what would I have done in his position ? What would I have done if I had children, and jewish people came to me for help ? The only honest answer is : I don’t know. So, I don’t come to this trying to make easy judgments.
This it’s a very human story. It’s a story where things are not nice and neat. And I’m interested in the grey area, the humanness, I suppose. So as I have grown, the story becomes different to me, and I suppose accross the way I have made some incredible friendships. With the Leitz family, with the survivors, with other academics in this field. This is what life is all about.
Simone: That’s very beautiful, I can very much relate to what you say … It is quite the same for me, when you are making a movie, sometimes you have quite a strong bond with people, something happens on the human level. When I do a movie, I’m always asking myself this question: what is the deeper reason for me to be touched by this story? So did you think a little bit about the deeper levels that may tell you even more about your bond with this story?
Frank Dabba Smith: I think, this is a really difficult question. What are the deeper reasons, why did I continue with the story. There may be some deeper reasons that I don’t fully understand, that may not be fully explainable. I think parts of it comes from my inspiration as a child. I was very inspired by people who helped other people, Reverend Dr Martin Luther King JR, and there are people in my jewish community who went to march with him, and who were arrested. I mean, this is to me what a human being, a jew, a christian, a muslim, is really about. I lived in Israel for a few years. During the time of the first intifada, I had Palestinian friends, I saw a lot of what was going on. I couldn’t deal with it, I couldn’t stay. And I vowed only to get involved again when I was in the position to do something.
I had a very profound experience in Gaza, during this time. When muslims helped me, when I was very vulnerable. They could have done anything else with me, what they had wanted to, in terms of hurting me … It’s a combination of this very deep questions, what it is to be a human being other then just taking up space. And the photographic angle, and loving my cameras. That’s as far as I can go in the moment.