The brink of oblivion: Color photos of Nazi-occupied Poland

In the late 1930s and 40s, German photographer and ardent Nazi Hugo Jaeger traveled in the upper echelon of the Third Reich — even with Hitler. Life Magazine has a nice collection of some of his startling photos of Polish people during Nazi occupation.

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.

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.

Seventy years later, the color photos are jarring. Color is modernity. Color is now.


  • Bonnie

    thanks, the whole Life picture website is pretty amazing…as if I needed another thing to spend time on!

  • Chuck

    This reminds of Edward Curtis’s documentation of the “vanishing” native peoples of the United States around the turn of the last century. He, like Jaeger, considered that this was the last chance to document the lives of these people before their inevitable extinction through manifest destiny. Like Curtis, Jaeger was wrong. The Jews, and the Indians, though severely tried, are still here, wiser and warier.