Jewish Ghetto Life in Color From 1939 Poland

October 19, 2012  

As part of his job as ‘special military reporter,’ Hugo Jaeger got to use advanced color photography during World War II. His work includes unique documentation of Jews in Warsaw, Kutno ghettos

Gili Gurel

Smiling made-up women, a man
wearing a yellow Star of David talking to German officers. Unusual color
photos from World War II ghettos in Poland shed light on Jewish life in
1939-1940, shortly after Jews were imprisoned in ghettos and before the mass
destruction began.



The pictures were taken by senior photographer Hugo Jaeger, who received
unprecedented access to the area and to the Nazi regime’s upper echelon,
including Adolf Hitler, and got to use the most advanced technology of
that time – color photography.


The photos were released to mark the 72nd anniversary of the official
establishment of the Warsaw Ghetto in October 1940.


In one photo from 1940, people are seen queuing for water and vegetables,
under a sign reading, in German, “Typhus area.”

גטו ורשה, ינואר 1940 (צילום: Gettyimages)

Warsaw Ghetto, 1940 (Photo:
Getty Images)


LIFE magazine, which bought the photo archive from Jaeger, describes him as
Hitler’s personal photographer and has published photos he took during the Third
Reich leader’s 50th birthday in the past.


But Dr. Daniel Uziel, a historian from Yad Vashem who also deals with photos
from that era, doubts the title, describing Jaeger as “a special military
reporter” who received rare access to places regular photographers were no
allowed into.


“Jaeger was a famous photojournalist in Germany in the 1930s. He was drafted
at the beginning of the war as a reservist to the Wehrmacht propaganda units.
Because of his status as a photographer he received the status of a special
military reporter,” explains Uziel.


“He was given uniform and weapons and received access to wherever he pleased.
Because of his special status he also got two unusual photography technologies:
Kodak color film and a stereoscopic camera which creates images in 3D. He would
shoot the same scenes with both cameras.


“He was supposed to hand the pictures over to the Nazi propaganda office, and
apparently never did. These photos did not pop up at the time.”


Justyna Majewska, a curator at the Holocaust Gallery in the Museum of the
History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, notes in an article on Time magazine’s website
that there is virtually no German military presence at all in the pictures.


Dr. Uziel explains that “the German army was preparing to invade the
Soviet Union at the time. So in those areas, taking pictures and conveying
information on the army were strictly prohibited.



“The propaganda units had nothing to do. They began looking for subjects and
found the ghettos. This is the reason why there is series of newspaper articles,
photos and films from that time showing the ghettos in Poland.”

נשים בגטו קוטנו ב-1940. לא מן הנמנע שייגר ביקש את רשותן לצלם ושוחח איתן (צילום: Gettyimages)

Women in
Kutno Ghetto in 1940 (Photo: Getty Images)
גבר יהודי מדבר עם קצין וחיילים מיחידת הארטילריה הגרמנית בגטו קוטנו, 1940 (צילום: Gettyimages)

Jewish man speaks with German
officers in Kutno, 1939 (Photo: Getty Images)



As opposed to other propaganda photos from that time, these pictures do
not appear to be hateful or dehumanizing, although Jaeger is described in the
article as an “ardent Nazi”.



It is quite possible that Jaeger had asked the people for permission to take
their photos, and thereby documented a young woman smiling for the camera in the
Kutno ghetto in the Łódź province, a photo which stands out against the
background of her miserable surroundings.


According to the Yad Vashem website, some 6,700 Jews lived in Kutno before
the Holocaust, making up more than one-quarter of the city’s population. The
Germans set up the ghetto in June 1940, after many more Jews arrived from the


“The color photos don’t seem to match the Nazi stereotype of Jews,” explains
Uziel. “The Jewish women are pretty, and they would usually choose ugly motifs.
It doesn’t look like a propaganda photo.”


The photo of the three made-up women was presented in Yad Vashem’s “Spots of
Light” exhibition, which describes the different experiences of Jewish women
during the Holocaust and has been displayed around the world.

גבר וילדים ליד מחסה מאולתר בגטו קוטנו, 1940 (צילום: Gettyimages)

Jewish man and children in
Kutno, 1940 (Photo: Getty Images)
יהודים בגטו קוטנו, 1940 (צילום: Gettyimages)

Jews in Kutno Ghetto, 1940
(Photo: Getty Images)


Jaeger did not hand these photos over to the propaganda office, but he did
transfer the 3D pictures to a German publisher, which was part of the propaganda
systems and had a monopoly over this technology.


“They published fancy albums with empty spaces to glue the pictures in, like
cards,” says Uziel. “The thick cover had a pocket with a stereoscope, a device
used to view these photos.”


Jaeger’s pictures were likely designated for an album on the war in the east,
part of which was to be dedicated to the Jews. The album was never published,
perhaps because of Nazi Germany’s defeat.


The Time article describes how Jaeger’s 2,000 photos reached LIFE in the


“On that spring day in 1945, during a search of the house where Jaeger
was staying, the Americans found the leather satchel in which the Führer’s
personal photographer had hidden literally thousands of color slides. What
happened next, however, left Jaeger staggering.



“Inside the satchel that held the compromising pictures, Jaeger had also
placed a bottle of brandy and a small, ivory gambling toy — a spinning top for
an old-fashioned game of chance known by, among other names, ‘put-and-take.’


“Happy with their find, the soldiers sat down to a session of put-and-take
while sharing the bottle of brandy with Jaeger and the owner of the house where
the photographer had been living. (Jaeger’s own apartment in Munich had been
destroyed in Allied air raids.) The leather satchel, and whatever else was
hidden away in it, was forgotten as the brandy dwindled and the game of
put-and-take spun on.


“After the Americans left, a shaken Jaeger packed the color slides into metal
jars and, over time, buried them in various locations on the outskirts of town.
In the years following the war, Jaeger occasionally returned to his multiple
caches, digging them up, drying them out, repacking and reburying them.”


In 1955, he dug them up and hid them in a bank vault in Switzerland. A decade
later he sold them to Life magazine.

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