Elsie Kühn-Leitz was employed by the »German Labour Front« in her father‘s company, Ernst Leitz GmbH in Wetzlar, as a sub-camp leader. The company is still internationally known today for the production of the Leica camera. In her function as sub-camp leader, Elsie Kühn-Leitz was responsible for a camp that had belonged to the company since 1942, in which Eastern Europeans were housed who had to perform forced labour. Ernst Leitz GmbH produced material that was important for the war effort in the form of high-quality optical devices. On 10 September 1943, Elsie Kühn-Leitz (40 years old at the time) was summoned for interrogation at Gestapo headquarters in Lindenstraße in Frankfurt am Main. After two hours of waiting, during which her father was questioned first, two young Gestapo officers interrogated her themselves for hours.
»In the end, I only replied that I might have committed an offence against a law set up by men, but never against divine law, because before God all men are equal, whether Jews, Christians or pagans, and the law of humanity had prompted me to do this, so I had nothing to regret.«
This was followed by her arrest on charges of »excessive humanity« towards the Eastern workers under her charge and of aiding and abetting the escape of a Jewish woman across the border. After she was allowed to collect her most necessary belongings from home under Gestapo escort and say goodbye to her children and husband, the doors of the Frankfurt police prison at Klapperfeldstrasse 5 closed behind her at around 9pm. She was imprisoned for an indefinite period. Elsie Kühn-Leitz still fared comparatively well, which she herself reported in relation to the Gestapo interrogations. She attributed the special treatment to the fact that she was a member of the Leitz family, behind which stood a global company. In addition, the Leitz family had contacts to people who supported the prisoner, such as director Willy Hof, who is considered the pioneer and initiator of the Reichsautobahn. Through him and bribes from her father, she received preferential treatment in the police prison. For example, she was housed in a better cell, was given access to books, could work in the sewing room during the day and was allowed into the cellar during bombing raids.
Elsie Kühn-Leitz describes in detail the prison conditions in the Klapperfeld – both hers and those of others. Even though she writes from her perspective, one can at least guess what imprisonment must have meant for the other prisoners.
Elsie Kühn-Leitz on her imprisonment in Klapperfeld
Situation, daily routine and prison conditions in the women‘s ward 1943
Admission: All her belongings were registered at the admission desk. She was only allowed to keep her washing things and blanket, but fragile and pointed objects had to be handed in. She was then taken to the women‘s ward, where she had to strip naked and was »examined« from head to toe. Afterwards, a guard who was well-disposed towards her took her to the best single cell available, which faced the smaller of the courtyards to the rear.
»My cell was 1.65 x 3.00m. It contained a folding bed with a wooden wool sack, in which, as it turned out later, there were many bugs and lice, which were especially active at night. A dirty grey woollen blanket lay on the bed. A so-called bucket for relieving oneself stood in a corner. There was also a small wooden stool in the cell, a very small folding table and a small shelf for storing washing things, as well as a wash bowl and a metal cup for drinking.«
The day began early in the morning at 4 am. At that time, the guards on duty got up and woke up the kitchen staff, the so-called Kalfaktoren – prisoners who had to carry out appropriate tasks, which also gave them the opportunity to organise some of the food.
Waking up and emptying tubs: Around 5 a.m. all prisoners were woken up. The guard on duty went around and unlocked each cell. Then the inmates had to take their bucket to empty and clean it in the bucket room. Even though there was an unbearable stench in this room and talking to the other prisoners was basically forbidden, this time was often used for exchanging food and a few encouraging words. After the so-called »bucketing«, the prisoners went to fetch water and then washed and cleaned their cells. In most cases, the cleaning was limited to stuffing the excelsior back into the sack. The beds had to be folded up against the wall after getting up and were only allowed to be lowered again in the evening. Lying down during the day was strictly forbidden.
Breakfast: At about 6 a.m. the cells were unlocked again and all inmates had to line up to receive a dry piece of bread and thin coffee.
Every morning: After washing and »bucketing«, the guards called out the names of all those who had to go to Gestapo or police headquarters that day. Those called out were crammed into the common room and then taken out one by one in the prisoner transporter, the »green Minna«.
Court walk: Between 10 and 11 a.m., the mandatory court walk was on the agenda. The prisoners were led into the courtyard for 20 minutes. The men‘s yard exercise usually took place between 5 and 7 a.m. and was audible through regular drill steps. If the guards did not have time or did not feel like it, or if the weather was bad, the yard exercise was cancelled. Talking was also strictly forbidden during yard exercise.
During the day it was strictly forbidden to sit or lie down on the bed. Each cell was equipped with a peephole through which the guards could check what was happening in the cell at any time. Every fortnight you were allowed to write a letter home and have extra food brought to you with permission from the Gestapo. Books were also only available with permission, which Elsie Kühn-Leitz received after some time.
Food: »It was the same thin water soup almost every day with a few potatoes, white cabbage, rarely savoy cabbage, occasionally red cabbage and more often pieces of kohlrabi. Twice a week, finely ground pieces of meat also floated around in it.«
Evening: At 5 p.m. the last meal was distributed. It usually consisted of malt coffee and dry bread – twice a week white cheese was added and the bread was replaced by noodles or porridge.
After about 8 weeks, through the intercession of Willy Hof, Elsie Kühn-Leitz was allowed to work in the sewing room from 7.00 am to 6.00 pm. The sewing room was located on the upper floors in a larger room facing the courtyard. The women imprisoned here had to mend bedding or prison clothes, for example. They also had to make dolls and stuffed animals for the so-called »Winterhilfswerk des Deutschen Volkes«. Although this was a form of forced labour, this activity was comparatively pleasant for Elsie Kühn-Leitz because it gave her the opportunity to escape the confinement and loneliness of the cell.
During the bombing, it was particularly terrible in the prison, because the prisoners, locked in their cells, had to witness bombs hitting all around them. However, as a trained medical orderly, Elsie Kühn-Leitz, again with the help of Mr Hof, managed to be taken to the air-raid shelter during the bombing. According to Elsie Kühn-Leitz, bombs did not hit the Klapperfeld until after her release, at the end of November 1943. Several prisoners and also guards died in the men‘s wing.
Source: Kühn-Leitz, Elsie: Mut zur Menschlichkeit. Vom Wirken einer Frau in ihrer Zeit. Dokumente, Briefe und Berichte. Herausgegeben von Klaus Otto Nass. Bonn 1994.