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Inside Nazi-Occupied Poland: Color Photos

Pictures by Hitler's personal photographer show a people on the brink of oblivion.

When Polish President Andrzej Duda ratified a law in early February 2018 effectively making it illegal to blame Poles for playing a role in the genocide of Jews during World War II, few people outside of the country ― aside from holocaust deniers ― were pleased. But what did the German occupation of Poland actually look like? Here, in seldom-seen color photos taken by one of Hitler's personal photographers, FOTO offers a glimpse of a subjugated Poland, its conquerors, and a Jewish population on the brink of oblivion. (Pictured: Adolf Hitler salutes a victory parade in Warsaw after the 1939 invasion of Poland.)

WOMEN OF KUTNO Hugo Jaeger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images WOMEN OF KUTNO Jewish women in the Kutno ghetto in 1940. The ghetto existed until 1942, when the majority of its inhabitants were sent to the Chelmno extermination camp, 30 miles north of the Polish city of Lodz. Hugo Jaeger joined the Nazi Party early on, and was an avid supporter until its squalid demise in 1945. Hitler was so taken with Jaeger's photographs that he reportedly declared, upon first seeing them: "The future belongs to color photography." After the blitzkrieg invasion of Poland, Jaeger journeyed there in 1940 and photographed in the ghetto at Kutno, 75 miles west of Warsaw, and at triumphant ceremonies and parades. GRAVES OF WARSAW Hugo Jaeger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images GRAVES OF WARSAW After both Germany (Sept. 1) and its ally the Soviet Union (Sept. 17) invaded Poland in 1939 with an overwhelming show of force ― attacking by sea, land, and air ― citizens in Warsaw resorted to burying their dead in makeshift graves in public parks and along city streets. Germany had staged several "attacks" on German outposts and troops along the border in the months leading up to its invasion of Poland, which it attempted to justify as self-defense. HELPLESS Hugo Jaeger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images HELPLESS Partially built Polish bombers sit helpless on the ground at the Okezie military airport near Warsaw after the German invasion. The first "official" act of war against Poland (after all of the staged incidents along the border) was an attack by the German air force, the Luftwaffe, on the Polish town of Wieluń, in central Poland, early in the morning of September 1, 1939. Minutes later, a German battleship opened fire on a Polish garrison located on the Westerplatte peninsula on the Baltic coast. World War II had begun. ARCHITECT OF GENOCIDE Hugo Jaeger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images ARCHITECT OF GENOCIDE Heinrich Himmler (right) speaks with an unidentified officer in Warsaw after the German invasion of Poland. As the Reich Leader of the Nazi SS, Himmler was, for well over a decade, one of the most powerful men in Germany. He was also, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "the key and senior Nazi official responsible for conceiving and overseeing implementation of the so-called Final Solution, the Nazi plan to murder the Jews of Europe." LIVING TO SERVE Hugo Jaeger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images LIVING TO SERVE Polish women clean captured Polish guns in the famous 19th-century Modlin fortress, north of Warsaw, after the German invasion and conquest of their country. While there is no record of where these women came from, or whether they were eventually placed in ghettos, in factories, or in extermination camps, it's a matter of record that millions of captured and subjugated civilians served as forced labor throughout Germany and in occupied countries. In fact, in a sickening irony, countless men, women, and children were literally worked to death in the service of the German war machine that had destroyed their world. PRISONERS IN THEIR OWN TOWN Hugo Jaeger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images PRISONERS IN THEIR OWN TOWN Jewish men (one of whom visibly wears a Star of David badge) rebuild the lintel on a damaged structure in the Kutno Ghetto in early 1940. The twin-spired building in the distance is St. Lawrence's church. The ghetto, which occupied the site of a former sugar factory, was ringed by barbed wire. Hunger, disease, and vermin were everywhere. Death by starvation was not unknown. In January 1945, three years after the ghetto's residents were sent to die at Chelmno, the first of the Nazi death camps, the Soviet Red Army ― which had, by then, turned on its former Nazi allies ― drove occupying Germans from Kutno, a town in which no Jews remained alive. GHOST LIFE Hugo Jaeger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images GHOST LIFE One of the most chilling aspects of the portraits made in the Kutno ghetto is that, in so many of the pictures, it is brutally clear that very few ― perhaps none ― of the people posing for Jaeger's camera can possibly imagine the scale of the systematic, mechanized horror that awaits them. Life in the ghetto was awful. But here, at least, the sun is shining. Surely (their expressions suggest) the war will one day be over. Families will be reunited, and return to their homes. Life will begin again. Nothing this terrible could possibly last forever. THE YOUNG WERE NOT SPARED Hugo Jaeger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images THE YOUNG WERE NOT SPARED A group of Jewish children pose in front of a makeshift shelter in the Kutno Ghetto in early 1940. "Between 1939 and 1945," according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum," at least 1.5 million Polish citizens were deported to German territory for forced labor. Hundreds of thousands were also imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. It is estimated that the Germans killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians during World War II … and murdered at least 3 million Jewish citizens of Poland." Portrait of an unidentified Jewish woman in the Kutno Ghetto, Poland, early 1940. Hugo Jaeger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Portrait of an unidentified Jewish woman in the Kutno Ghetto, Poland, early 1940. A peddler in the Jewish area of Warsaw, after the German occupation, in October of 1939. Hugo Jaeger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images A peddler in the Jewish area of Warsaw, after the German occupation, in October of 1939. Portrait of an unidentified Jewish woman and young girl in the Kutno Ghetto, early 1940. Hugo Jaeger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images Portrait of an unidentified Jewish woman and young girl in the Kutno Ghetto, early 1940. THE GREAT LOSS Hugo Jaeger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images THE GREAT LOSS A common scene in Poland during the German invasion, 1939. The sign points to way to the front. Within a month of the invasion, all of Poland was occupied. A Polish government-in-exile was formed, working with the Allies and directing fierce underground resistance fighters (Jewish and non-Jewish, alike) from its headquarters in Paris and, later, in London. Historians estimate that around one in 10 of the Jews living in Poland before the war survived the Nazi-directed genocide.