Yesterday, I learned about the history of some microscope companies. I was a little surprised.
In the business of biology, there is a hierarchy of prestige. The highest rated microscopes are typically made by Zeiss, and the price reflects that. They really are sweet machines with excellent optics, and rock solid, reliable mechanicals. I adore the old Zeiss Universal, and if one dropped into my lap I would be overjoyed in spite of my shattered femurs. Second on my list would be a Leica scope, but the ranking is a little unfair — it’s based partly on reputation, not necessarily the quality of the modern instruments, and one of the reasons Zeiss is prized is pure status-seeking. Then there’s Nikon and Olympus, two Japanese companies with excellent scopes…but they aren’t German. There’s a strong cachet to German engineering, but really, the Japanese optics are pretty darned good.
My lab microscope is a Leica and I’m very happy with it. We also have a fair number of student microscopes made by American companies, and I confess with some patriotic embarrassment that they’re junk. Cheap, but junk. I had the displeasure of working with some student scopes yesterday and was dismayed at the lack of that silky smooth feel and crisp, clear optics, but then, we can’t afford to drop $10,000 each on the 30 scopes we might need to equip a student lab.
Notice that my top two microscope brands are German, and these are old companies, established in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And that makes one wonder…what were they doing during WWII and the rise of the Nazis? It’s an uncomfortable question, and a little bit unfair, since every German company had to make accommodations to coexist with the Nazis, and it’s not as if they could have shuttered their factories and labs and moved to a different country in 1933. We could ask how enthusiastically they cooperated with the regime, however.
There, Zeiss disappointed me. Zeiss used forced labor from the concentration camps during the war.
On October 18, 1944, 200 female workers were allocated to the ZEISS Goehle-Werk, an additional 300 women had been transported from Auschwitz on October 28, 1944, and yet another 200 were transported on December 14.
According to prisoner statements, the prisoners were guarded by female SS members who were armed with rubber truncheons, which they used. Some of the guards had previously worked at ZEISS-Ikon. The women were housed on one level of the factory, and they worked two or three levels below.
The ZEISS Werk Reick, located in the southeastern part of Dresden, was one of four ZEISS-Ikon AG plants in Dresden. Like the ZEISS-Ikon Goehle-Werk, it became the site of a subcamp in October 1944. However, unlike the other subcamps with female prisoners in Dresden, the Werk Reick is less well known. That may be because of no trial was held, in contrast to the case of the Goehle-Werk. The camp evacuation took place in mid-April 1945 after the allies occupation.
Moreover, there was evidence that during the war (1941-1944), ZEISS has utilized thousands of forced labor workers, which comprised about 30% of all its employees. Furthermore, according to reports, ZEISS also provided direct economic support to the national and local Nazi-party organizations (Reference: 6. Carl Zeiss. Die Geschichte Eines Unternehmens. Band 2, 2000).
Yikes. They profited from slave camps.
You might argue that, well, they had to. Optics were critical to the German war effort, and the Nazis basically held a gun to the head of every company in their territory. They just did what they had to do. But then, I read about Leica during WWII and the Leica Freedom Train.
“Under considerable risk and in defiance of Nazi policy, Ernst Leitz took valiant steps to transport his Jewish employees and others out of harm’s way,” said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director and a Holocaust survivor. “At a time when the Nazis were steadily advancing their nation on a path toward war and the Holocaust, Leitz had the courage to defy their directives while risking his life to save others. In the moral void that engulfed the world in those nightmarish days when the cruelty of the Nazis ran rampant, Ernst Leitz had the Courage to Care. If only there had been more Oskar Schindlers, more Ernst Leitzs, then less Jews would have perished. We remember and honor his act of selfless moral courage in the face of absolute tyranny.”
Yeah. The company saw what was coming and started hiring Jewish workers and assigning them to foreign offices to get them out of harm’s way.
As early as 1933 and continuing as late as 1943, Leitz quietly established what has become known as the “Leica Freedom Train”, a covert means of allowing his Jewish employees, their families, and even non-Jews to leave Germany under the guise of being ‘assigned’ overseas. These refuges were sent to Leitz sales offices in France, Britain, Hong Kong and the United States. They were trained, housed at company expense and paid a stipend until work was found for them in the photo industry.
As new Leitz “employees” arrived in New York they made their way to the Manhattan offices of E. Leitz Inc., each with a symbol of freedom around their necks – a new Leica Camera. The total number of escapees has never been established but may have been as high as 200-300 in the United States alone.
Unfortunately, the company wasn’t large enough to employ 6 million people overseas.
I am now a little happier with my Leica DM (although I really had no complaints about it before), but I’m giving a few dirty looks to my Wild (a Zeiss-associated company) M3C, even though it is an objectively magnificent tool.