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Photographs of Kutno taken from the case files of war criminals

The main entrance to the factory on the grounds of which the ghetto was situated

Ghetto inhabitants coming to get food from the communal kitchen run by the Judenrat in one of the buildings

Street trading in the ghetto’s main square.  The few goods that came from the outside, and smuggled items were traded here

A barber working outside.  Bed sheets spread out for airing were a common sight in photographs of the Kutno ghetto – apparently part of the effort to maintain a semblance of hygiene in the crowded conditions there

In recent years, rare and unusual visual material on the Kutno ghetto – one of the lesser-known ghettos in Poland – has been brought to light.  Amongst other things, color and stereoscopic photographs of the ghetto were discovered in US and German archives, as well as an original film made in the ghetto by the Germans. Copies of these materials were acquired for the Yad Vashem archives, and while researching them, we found a previously unknown collection of photographs of the ghetto amongst the older Yad Vashem collections, which we will display here.

Prior to World War II, approximately 6700 Jews lived in Kutno (Lodz district), constituting more than 25% of the total city population.  The Germans entered Kutno on September 15, 1939 and during the first months of the occupation the synagogue was destroyed, and many Jews were taken for forced labor.  A Judenrat was apparently appointed as early as November 1939, but the ghetto was only established officially in June 1940.  Before that, the Jewish population increased considerably due to the constant influx of Jewish refugees from peripheral areas.

With the ghetto’s establishment, all the Jews were transferred to the grounds of the “Konstancja” sugar factory.  The eviction was photographed by Franz Hansen, a Wehrmacht soldier posted there.  More than 7000 Jews were crammed into the grounds of the factory, several buildings of which had been bombed, forcing many of the new tenants to make outdoor living arrangements.  The Germans surrounded the area with barbed wire and watchtowers.  Thanks to efficient organization, black market business and smuggling, the ghetto prisoners managed to preserve a semblance of normality, apart from the terrible living conditions.  However, from time to time epidemics broke out, and food was sometimes scarce.

The ghetto was liquidated at the end of March/beginning of April 1942, with the deportation of all its inhabitants to the Chelmno extermination camp.

In the sixties, comprehensive criminal investigative proceedings were filed in Germany against minor war criminals.  One of these dealt with the German objective in the Kutno region.  The investigations were conducted in conjunction with the War Crimes Investigation Department of the Israeli Police Force, and many pertinent materials changed hands at this time.  A series of 17 photographs from the Kutno ghetto was recently found in one of the WCI files in the Yad Vashem archives.  These photographs clearly portray some of the characteristics of this unusual ghetto, as well as the daily life there. The series is undated, but we estimate that it was photographed in the summer of 1941, when the ghetto was already organized and the weather was warm enough to allow for widespread outdoor activity.   It would seem that outdoor life was the most significant characteristic of this ghetto, and this is clearly seen in the photographs.  Different artisans conducted their business in the factory square where the street trading familiar from other ghettos was also conducted.  Portrayed also are the improvised homes of those forced to live outside. In the collection there are also two photographs of German Schupo policemen with their prisoners in the ghetto.  These two photographs indicate that the pictures were taken by one of the policemen posted in the ghetto – a common phenomenon in the war period.  As opposed to the photographs mentioned earlier which were taken with advanced technology for propaganda purposes, here we are dealing with private snapshots, which are therefore also less posed.   This collection constitutes a valuable historical document on daily life in the Kutno ghetto.

Additional archives in possession of valuable visual material on Kutno:

1. Bundesarchiv-Filmarchiv, Berlin - film shot in the Kutno ghetto

2. Deutsches Historisches Museum - collection of stereoscopic photographs by Hugo Jäger.

3. Judisches Museum Rendsburg - Photographs by Franz Hansen.

4. Time-Life - collection of color photographs by Hugo Jäger.

Additional reading:
Pinkas Hakehillot, Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities. Poland, vol.1, Jerusalem, 1976, pp.222-229.
There are approximately 30 documentation files and testimonies about the Kutno ghetto in the Yad Vashem Archives..