The Brink of Oblivion: Color Photos From Nazi-Occupied Poland, 1939-1940

Unidentified woman, Kutno, Nazi-occupied Poland, 1939.
Hugo Jaeger—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Unidentified woman, Kutno, Nazi-occupied Poland, 1939.
History
1939
1940

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, a German photographer and ardent Nazi named Hugo Jaeger enjoyed unprecedented access to the Third Reich’s upper echelon, traveling with Adolf Hitler to massive rallies and photographing him at intimate parties and in quieter, private moments. The photos made such an impression on the Führer that Hitler famously declared, upon first seeing Jaeger’s work: “The future belongs to color photography.”

But beyond merely chronicling Hitler’s ceaseless travels, Jaeger also documented the brute machinery of the Reich, including the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. Here, LIFE.com presents a series of photos from Warsaw and from the town of Kutno, 75 miles west of the Polish capital, in 1939 and 1940. Adding perspective to the images is an essay (below) by Justyna Majewska, discussing just what Jaeger’s haunting images can still tell us about that era, three-quarters of a century after they were made. — Ben Cosgrove


Why would Hugo Jaeger, a photographer dedicated to lionizing Adolf Hitler and the “triumphs” of the Third Reich, choose to immortalize conquered Jews in Warsaw and Kutno (in central Poland) in such an uncharacteristic, intimate manner? Most German photographers working in the same era as Jaeger usually focused on the Wehrmacht; on Nazi leaders; and on the military victories the Reich was routinely enjoying in the earliest days of the Second World War. Those pictures frequently document brutal acts of humiliation, even as they glorify German troops.

The photographs that Jaeger made in the German ghettos in occupied Poland, on the other hand, convey almost nothing of the triumphalism seen in so many of his other photographs. Here, in fact, there is virtually no German military presence at all. We see the devastation in the landscape of the German invasion of Poland, but very little of the “master race” itself.

It is, of course, impossible to fully recreate exactly what Jaeger had in mind, but from the reactions of the people portrayed in these images in Warsaw and Kutno, there appears to be surprising little hostility between the photographer and his subjects. Most of the people in these pictures, Poles and Jews, are smiling at the camera. They trust Jaeger, and are as curious about this man with a camera as he is about them. In this curiosity, there is no sense of hatred. The men, women and children on the other side of the lens and Jaeger look upon one another without the aggression and tension characteristic of the relationship between perpetrator and victim.

[Read the stranger-than-fiction story of how Time Inc. came to own Hugo Jaeger's archive, and see more of his photos]

Strikingly, none of the people in these photos appear to have been forced to pose. In fact, Jaeger probably asked them for permission to take their pictures; maybe he and they had a short chat before he began photographing them. We can even go so far as to suggest that there is no sign of overt brutality here. To Jaeger (unlike for so many of the Reich’s supporters), Jews were not mere “rats,” or “parasites”: He simply perceived them as fascinating subjects. While he probably felt that their subjugation was inevitable in the face of the German Blitzkrieg, he nevertheless captures these already subjugated people sympathetically.

We know, all these decades later, that these thousands of people were, in fact, prisoners, whether or not the ghettos that would follow had already been built. [NOTE: In a city the size of Warsaw the creation of the notorious ghetto was quote complicated, and took a few months to complete; in Kutno, the Jews were forced into their ghetto in one day.]

We know what it means that their homes had been destroyed. We know what the anti-Semitic regulations—like the yellow Star of David that Jews were forced to wear at all times in public—would ultimately come to symbolize. But Jaeger, photographing in 1939, shows these people as a community trying to rebuild against all odds.

Seeing these photographs today, seven decades later, we know the harsh, unspeakable truth. Within a very short time, the situation for Kutno’s and Warsaw’s native Jews became more and more difficult, and ultimately catastrophic. Poles and Jews were separated from one another. The Nazis created a Jewish council, the Judenrat, responsible for making Jews obey the Germans’ diktats. The food supply dwindled horribly.

In June 1940, all of Kutno’s roughly 8,000 Jews were forced into the ghetto—the grounds of an old sugar factory. Typhus and hunger soon began killing hundreds of them. In 1942, the Nazis implemented Operation Reinhardt, which effectively put in motion the Nazi’s planned destruction of all Polish Jewry. In the spring of 1942 the Kutno Ghetto itself was “liquidated.” Jews who were unable to escape and find help among their Polish neighbors were taken to Kulmhof (Chełmno), the first death camp, located on the River Ner not far from the city of Lodz. There, thousands of Kutno’s Jewish men, women and children were put to death in “gas vans”—mobile gas chambers—in what were among the first mass murders of the Holocaust.

Operation Reinhardt also sealed the fate of the Jews of Warsaw. Liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto started in July 1942 and took nearly three months to complete. Horrifically overcrowded cattle trains carried 300,000 Jews to Treblinka.

All these many years later, Jaeger’s pictures from Warsaw and Kutno are still so hard to look at—and hard to turn away from. I presume that the beautiful young girl seen smiling directly, confidently, at the camera (slide #1 in this gallery) is Jewish: on the collar of her coat, we see what is evidently a folded, yellow Star of David. Neither she, nor Jaeger himself, could have truly, fully foreseen her fate: to die of typhus, or to starve to death, or to be forced into a gas chamber at Chelmno, only to emerge again in a haunting photograph long, long after she was dead.


Justyna MajewskaJustyna Majewska works as a curator at the Holocaust Gallery in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. She is also a Ph.D. candidate in the Polish Academy of Science’s Institute of Philosophy and Sociology. Her dissertation focuses on social change in the Warsaw Ghetto.


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