Helmut Newton was born in Berlin, Germany as Helmut Neustädter, the son of Klara and Max Neustädter. His family was Jewish. Newton attended the Heinrich-von-Treitschke-Realgymnasium and the American School in Berlin. At the age of 12 his fascination with photography began and his disinterest in school grew, he left school and started an apprenticeship with then renowned photographer Elsie Simon, known as Yva. Yva inspired Newton throughout his career with her fashionable and erotic nude photography that was decades ahead of its time.
The increasingly oppressive restrictions placed on Jews by the Nuremberg laws meant that his father lost control of the factory in which he manufactured buttons and buckles; he was briefly interned in a concentration camp on Kristallnacht, 9 November 1938, which finally compelled the family to leave Germany. Newton's parents fled to Argentina. He was issued with a passport just after turning 18 and left Germany on 5 December 1938. At Trieste he boarded the Conte Rosso (along with about 200 others escaping the Nazis), intending to journey to China. After arriving in Singapore he found he was able to remain there, first briefly as a photographer for the Straits Times and then as a portrait photographer.