This is a long story, but I promise it's a good one :)
This was my mom's birthday present to me this year: The Leica IIIb. This particular camera was the 50th one the company produced way back in 1940. It was my mom's first camera which she started using in high school, and eventually she and my dad travelled all over Europe with it.
It was passed down to my mother by my grandfather, and that's where the story gets interesting. My grandfather, a Jew, was born and raised in Cologne, Germany, right around the time that Hitler was coming to power. One day, as a teenager, he and his brother were riding their bikes through town and passed a Hitler rally in front of a church. They were stopped and ordered to salute... or else. When they refused they were beaten, but allowed to go on their way after finally giving a reluctant "heil Hitler."
Grandpa knew it was time to get out while he still could, and in the late 1930s he left his homeland to come to America. When WWII started he joined the US Army as an engineer and was sent back to Germany to fight the Nazis, which I always thought was pretty badass.
And that's where he got this camera. Actually, he won it in a poker game.
Now, I'd be really curious to know two things: first, where did the guy Grandpa won it from get it in the first place? I mean, he sure as hell didn't buy it, it wasn't like we were trying to support the German economy at the time. Maybe he stole it from a bombed out store? I'd like to think he plucked it off a dead Nazi officer, but your guess is as good as mine.
Second, I really want to know what Grandpa's winning hand was.
Anyway, for the rest of the war, Grandpa shot many photos of the war around him with this here Leica. Soldiers in transport trucks; buildings turned to rubble; bridges that lay half sunk in the Rhone river. His company was among the first to liberate the concentration camps, and the horrifying images he captured there of countless bodies piled a dozen feet high will stay with me for the rest of my life.
As luck would have it, his company ended up in Cologne at the war's conclusion. And among all the devastation, one of the few buildings that remained standing was the church where, a decade earlier at a Hitler rally, he and his brother had been beaten into saluting the greatest villain of the 20th century. So he handed the camera to a fellow soldier and had his picture taken at that very spot with a look on his face that says "Hey asshole, remember me?"
So now it's my turn. This camera has been around. It's photographed things that no one should have to see, but also captured moments of joy, experimentation, and exploration. It's obviously very valuable, but to my family it's priceless, and while the tempting thing to do would be to keep it on a shelf somewhere safe, well... somehow I don't think Grandpa would have wanted that.
Grandpa would have wanted you to view it large.