The old man looks relaxed, almost happy chatting to the soldiers. He and most of the other Jewish citizens pictured here in 1939 and 1940, are smiling, seemingly pleased to pose for photographer Hugo Jaeger.
Yet we know, 70 years later, that these people, and thousands of others like them, were in fact prisoners, to be despised as ‘rats’ and ‘parasites’ in Nazi propaganda.
Even more surprising, Jaeger was Hitler’s personal photographer, enjoying unprecedented access to the Third Reich’s upper echelon, traveling with the Fuhrer to his massive rallies and photographing him at intimate parties and during private moments.
The photos have been released to mark the official establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1940 and the entire set are on display at Life.com here.
They were taken in the town of Kutno, 75 miles west of the Polish capital Warsaw.
Although a staunch Nazi, Jaeger as a photographer perhaps perceived the Polish Jews as fascinating subjects and his work depicts their tragic circumstances while at the same time allowing them to retain their humanity and dignity.
Apart from the odd soldier, there is very little German military presence. Instead the series shows the devastation in the landscape of the German invasion of Poland, while revealing very little of the ‘master race’ itself.
Exactly what Jaeger had in mind is of course a matter of guesswork, 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.
Jaeger’s photos made such an impression on the Führer that he announced, upon first seeing his work: ‘The future belongs to color photography.’
But beyond recording Hitler’s endless travels, Jaeger also documented the progress of the Reich, including the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939.
The Kutno pictures serve as a unique curiosity. Why, instead of focussing of the glories of the Hitler’s third Reich, did a staunch Nazi like Jaeger chose to take pictures of conquered Jews?
In June 1940, all 8,000 of Kutno’s Jews were rounded up and taken to what would be their new home – the grounds of an old sugar factory – where hundreds would die of hunger and Typhus.
Poles and Jews, friends and neighbours, were separated from one another. A Jewish council, the Judenrat, was created and tasked with forcing Jews to obey their German overlords.
A lucky few managed to escape and were sheltered by their Polish friends. Most were not so lucky.
In 1942, as part of Hitler’s ‘final solution’ the Nazis began Operation Reinhardt, the plan to eliminate all of Poland’s Jews. In the spring of 1942 the Kutno Ghetto itself was ‘liquidated.’ The majority of its inhabitants were sent to the Chelmno extermination camp.
The unique set of pictures could have been lost forever were it not for a bottle of brandy. As the allies advanced into Germany in 1945, Jaeger hid his photographs in a leather suitcase.
He was then confronted by a group of American soldiers. Luckily they were distracted by a bottle of Cognac which they opened and shared with the photographer.
Had they searched the case further, and found so many pictures of Hitler Jaeger would have most likely been arrested on the the spot and tried as a war criminal.
After such a close shave, Jaeger decided to bury the pictures inside 12 glass jars outside Munich. He would periodically return to their burial place to check they were safe.
In 1955, he dug them up and stored them in a bank vault. Ten years later, in 1965, he sold them to Life magazine.
Source: The Daily Mail