Kurt Hielscher (1881-1948)

Kurt Hielscher was a selfmade German photographer born in Strzegom/Striegau, today's Poland, Germany at the time. He was born the son of a ranger, but ended up in an orphanage at a young age in Bunzlau, Germany, todays Bolesławiec in Poland.

As a youngster he already liked to hike the mountains of Silesia. His studies gave him the opportunity to travel once a year and he got a taste for it. He became a teacher. In his first major trip abroad, he went to Spain. The following years he travelled from Scotland to the Caucasus and from Sicily to Spitsbergen. In 1914 he went to Spain for a second time.

A postcard from the orphanage in Bolesławiec, Poland where Kurt Hielscher grew up.

When this study trip ended, Kurt Hielscher was surpised by the outbreak of the First World War while heading back home to Germany on a steamer. The boat was forced to return back to Spain due to the outbreak of the war and he stayed there for more than five years. He used his involuntary stay in Spain by traveling around the country, mostly by foot. This way he made the best of it and managed to make a living with exhibitions and lectures. He did not return home until after the war where he found his hometown in another country: Poland.

Kurt Hielscher had to give up his job as a teacher and decided to continue to lecture about "The Unknown Spain". He decided to turn his work into a book! Four years after the war he released Das Unbekannte Spanien (1922). A new book form was created: the travel photobook and that did not remain unnoticed.

Photo from a painting I received from Kurt Hielscher's grandson Chris M. Hamann who is still looking out for the painter of this painting.

"I try to show the original face of a country and its people in my books. As witnesses of a sinking world, my photos will still speak when I have long fallen silent myself."

Kurt Hielscher in "Meister der Kamera erzählen", Wilhelm Schöppe, 1937

As a next step, Kurt Hielscher wanted to show the world Germany was not a barbaric country and worked the followig years on a Germany photoalbum. This book became a huge success as well and Kurt Hielscher received words of thanks from Reichspräsident Von Hindenburg.

"Now the camera wanted me to make a same book for Germany"

Accordingly, Kurt Hielscher received invitations from other countries: Italy, Yugoslavia, Austria, The Nordic Scandinavian Countries and Romania. He met rulers and kings, well-knowns wrote prefaces for his books. Kurt Hielscher became a career photographer instead or next to the wanderer he was at the beginning. Nearly half a million copies were sold. Unfortunately all his negatives were destroyed at the end of the Second World War due to allied bombings. Kurt Hielscher's work fell more or less into oblivion.

Others interested in Kurt Hielscher's work

Colorization from page 149, "Women from Skopska Crnagora", from Kurt Hielscher's Yugoslavia 1926. Kiro Mavrovski sent it to me in Oktober 2019.

Today there are a few, but an increasing number of people, who worked or are still working on projects about Kurt Hielscher's work. Most have something to do with rephotography:

J.Agustín Núñez worked in between 1987 and 1991 on the rephotography of Kurt Hielscher's Spain photoalbum with a very impressive book as a result. Keep in mind that his photos were analog.

Wolfgang Henkel published a rephotography project on Kurt Hielscher's Germay photoalbum.

100 de ani is a rephotoproject of Kurt Hielscher's Romania album and celebrates the 100 year's existence of the current Romanian state in 2018. It is really niteresting to see the videos, though in Romanian, with testimonials of the people who actually live in the places that have been photographed and in some cases are descendants of those who were photographed by Kurt Hielscher.

Chris Holland runs a website on Kurt Hielscher's work in Spain with an interesting interactive map of the places Kurt Hielscher photographed.

A beautiful rephotographyproject from Costin Gheorghe with several photos from Kurt Hielscher in Romania. Check the website or his Facebookpage. It is really worth with stunning slideshows.

Kiro Mavroski with Македонија во боја - Macedonia in color, a colorization project on Facebook that is about old photos from Macedonia with all photos from Kurt Hielscher colorized. 

Reissue of Kurt Hielscher's photoalbum of 1933 Romania published in November 2022 by the Center for Romanian Studies. I received a digital copy of the book and still need to write a review. 

Chus Tudelilla wrote an article about Kurt Hielscher's work in Aragón in Spain in el Periódico, p.48-49, 8 January 2023. 

Next to these people, there are numerous who share his work on social media and recognize the art of Kurt Hielscher's photography. If you ask me, there goes nothing above leafing through an original, also because of the use of copperdeepprint which gives each photo a golden glance and it looks like 3D.

Publications about/with Kurt Hielscher's work from the interbellum period

Journal des Voyages, 1927

More examples will follow.

"Kurt Hielscher erzählt", Photo-Technik, Herausgegeben von der Zeiss-Ikon A.G.-Dresden, August 1935, Nummer 4. Photo: Franz Fiedler.

An example of an early exhibition by Kurt Hielscher in the Museum of Arts and Industries in Berlin as published in the Spanish magazine La Esfera, Año VII, número 361, 4th of December 1920.


When I noticed Kurt Hielscher died in 1948, I've asked myself someday whether Kurt Hielscher would have been right or wrong in World War II, but there is slim information about Kurt Hielscher to be found. His photos were lustily shared on various social media and there was nothing really worrisome on Wikipedia, the best source I found about him at the time. I was already in touch with his grandson Christopher H. Hamann (Chris), whom I found on the internet. In April 2018 I wrote to him by e-mail and received an enthusiastic response. This man was proud of Kurt Hielscher's work and also shared it on his website. He gave me a high-resolution photo of the painting depicting Kurt Hielscher (see above), which hangs on the wall at his home in California. Chris told me that the negatives of all of Kurt Hielscher's photos were lost at the end of World War II and that he was quite upset about it. Chris himself has no vivid memories of his grandfather. His father died on the Eastern Front during the war. His mother is the daughter of Kurt Hielscher. The name of Kurt Hielscher's wife is unknown to me.

Meeting the highest dignitaries

Another step was to get more insight in the people Kurt Hielscher met, for example because they wrote a preface for one of his editions. Who were these people? That might say something about who Kurt Hielscher was. Next to that, I wondered whether there were more pictures of Kurt Hielscher to be found or maybe of the encounters he had with these authors or other famous people. Or maybe one of him in action as a photographer. Till now I did not succeed in finding such a photo nor a photo of Kurt Hielscher with one of the famous. 

Kurt Hielscher was a guest of the King of Spain, Reichspräsident Hindenburg, Mussolini and the King of Romania. The prefaces to his books were written by Gerhart Hauptmann, Hans Thoma, Selma Lagerlöf, Karin Michaelis and Octavian Goga. Let's dive a littlebit deeper in the copies that I have:

Spain, 1922 (8-19 tausend), signed by Kurt Hielscher - "Licht gibt allem Seele! - Kurt Hielscher. And another copy, also 1922 (49-58 tausend). No preface except from Kurt Hielscher himself but dedicated to "Seiner Majestät König Alfons XIII. von Spanien in grösster Erfurcht gewidmet". 

Germany, (1924 (1-15 tausend), 1938) - preface Gerhart Hauptmann (1862-1946) - Nobel Price in literature (1912) Dedication; "Dem Treuen Künder Deutschen Wesensart - in Dankbarer Verehrung gewidmet" and with an added handwritten letter "Mit dem letzten handschriftlen Brief von Hans Thoma", dd. December 26, 1923, Germany photoalbum (1924 (typed, not handwritten), 1938 (147-154 tausend) (the letter is missing in this copy), 1941 (155-175 tausend)) - Hans Thoma (1839-1924) - Painter. After his death, Thoma's artwork was favored by the Nazis during the Third Reich, in between 1933-1945. Some of his artworks were acquired for Adolf Hitler's planned Führermuseum in Linz and included looted art from the Jewish collectors. 

Italy, 1925 (1-30 tausend), dedicated to "Seiner Majestät König Viktor Emanuel III. von Italien, in grösster Erfurcht gewidmet" with a preview from Wilhelm von Bode (1845-1929), art historian and museum curator.

Yugoslavia, 1926: not dedicated and with two prefaces, one from Kurt Hielscher himself as introduction to his photos, the other, with an unknown author, about the history of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and its geographical area. Kurt Hielscher notes in his preface that he was invited by the government to make a similar photoalbum as the previous ones from Spain, Germany and Italy. I have several copies, all 1-15 tausend.

Weniger Länder Europas sind so reich an grundverschiedenen, mannigfaltigen Eindrücken." "Und so reichgegliedert die Landschaft ist, so vielgestaltig sind Menschenwerk und Menschenart." "...Sie werden auch den Beweis erbringen, daß Jugoslavien für mich ein großes reiches Erlebnis war. Un das wird es jedem sein, der mit offenen Augen durch dieses unberührte Land reist."

"Few countries in Europe are so rich in fundamentally different, diverse impressions." "And as richly structured as the landscape is, so are the works of man and the species of man." "As me, you will also see that Yugoslavia is a great, rich experience. And so will anyone who travels this pristine land with their eyes wide open." - Kurt Hielscher, 1926 in the preface of his Yugoslavia photoalbum.

Austria 1928 - preface by Dr. Rudolf Guby (1881-1928) - Art historian and researcher of Bavarian-Austrian homeland history, Passau- based. One of the founding fathers of the Institute for East Bavarian local research (1926). Dedicated to Dr. Michael Hainisch, Bundespräsident der Republik Österreich.

Denmark 1931: Karin Michaelis (1872-1950) - Famous and highly productive writer. After the rise of fascism, her books were banned in Germany and Italy. In 1940, with the invasion of Denmark, Karin Michaelis emigrated to America. She returned to Denmark in 1946 after the end of World War II.

Sweden 1931: Selma Lagerlöf - Nobel Price in literature (1909)

Norwegen 1931: Sigrid Undset - Nobel Price in literature (1928)

Signature and message from Kurt Hielscher in one of my two Spain photoalbum. There's also a very small newspaper clipping from the 31st of July 1948 pasted in it by a previous owner of the book.

Romania 1933: Octavian Goga (1881-1938) - Octavian Goga was a poet, translater, journalist and politician. His poems were about the beauty of his native, Transylvanian land and the hard life of farmers. As a nationalist politician he first joined the Romanian National Party of Transylvania and the Banate (PNR) and gained popularity among his fellow Romanians for his pursuit of a Greater Romania, but fell into conflict because of this with the Hungarian authorities and was imprisoned several times as a result. After the achievement of Greater Romania in 1918, Octavian Goga devoted himself exclusively to politics. He became a minister in 1920-'21 and again in 1926-'27. In 1932 Octavia founded the National Agrarian Party (PNA), which was not only nationalistic but also anti-Semitic. On December 28, 1937, Goga became prime minister and passed some anti-Semitic laws aimed at harming the Jews.

Italy 1939: Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) 

"Den Anstoß zur endgültigen Ausführung gab im vergangenen Jahr mein Empfang bei Mussolini. Er sicherte mir für die Beendigung meiner Arbeit die weitestgehende Unterstützung der italienischen Regierung zu. Und darum spreche ich an dieser Stelle für alle Förderung, die ich erfuhr: durch den Duce, durch die Herren Akfieri und Depretis und deren Mitarbeiter, sowie durch den Deutschen Botschafter Herrn von Mackensen, meinen verbindlichsten Dank aus. Er wurde eine beglückende viermonatige Fahrt durch das abseitige Italien."- Kurt Hielscher in the preface of his 1939 Italy edition.

In May 2021 I achieved a copy of Kurt Hielscher's 1939 edition (published in 1941) which is dedicated to Benito Mussolini.

Leaflet on the occasion of Kurt Hielscher's 60th birthday in January 1941.

A dark side!?

On Wednesday 12 December 2019, I received a postal package. Again expecting a book full of beautiful photographs by Kurt Hielscher. But I was totally shocked. When I opened the book on a random page, I saw a photo of Vienna. "This was not Germany!" I quickly flipped through the book and more remarkable things stood out. It contained a number of photos of places that have been conquered by Nazi Germany since the start of the Second World War and  were not included in the first edition of 1924. 

I was totally shocked

These are places in Austria, France (Alsace), Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia. But there was more: A photo from the Reichskanzlei and the working room of Adolf Hitler on page 234 and 235. And even a photo with swastikaflags on it with the Old City Hall in Torún, today's Poland but on page 293 included in Kurt Hielscher's 1941 edition of his Germany book. 

And then the preface of that same 1941 edition: "Thanks to Adolf Hitler's drive for a Greater Germany, Grossdeuschland is restored in full glory." Can you imagine my thoughts? The questions I had. Kurt Hielscher also thanks in his foreword the Reichsregierung, the government for its help, especially Dr.Goebbels, the minister of Propaganda of the Nazi Regime. Now I really needed to know more. I realized my project could be over. I was so disappointed. Was such a new edition of a Greater Germany commissioned by the Nazi Regime? Or was this Kurt Hielscher's own free will? What did he know at the time? Did Kurt Hielscher collapsed under pressure? Was he already aware that a lot of his work would be lost due too allied bombings? And: Was there more to know? Could it become worse?

It turned out that the 1941 edition was a celebration of the unification of the previous German lands.

The Gothic Old Town Hall, Ratusz Staromiejski in Torún dates back to the 13th century. Here published by Kurt Hielscher on page 293 of his 1941 Germany edition. Torún was annexed by the nazis in 1939. I painted the swastikaflags red, because I don't want any nazisymbols on my website. This way I also want to avoid others to share it.

Kurt Hielscher in his 1941 edition of the Germany book. Could he speak out freely here? 

Yes, it could become worse. I wanted to know more and I found more: an article on the website of the Auschwith-Birkenau, the former nazi concentration and exterminationa camp "The Lighter Side of Auschwitz, Or the Cultural Life of the SS in the Death Camps" from February 2007 that referred to an article of famous publicist on Nazi Germany, Ernst von Klee. Kurt Hielscher was mentioned. Subtitle of the article in English: "How German Artists Kept Their Compatriots in a Good Mood while They Were Busy Murdering" It turned out that Kurt Hielscher was scheduled for a performance at Auschwitz to entertain military men on the 18th of January 1945, but it was cancelled because of the approaching Russian troops. The quote: "Den allerletzten Kulturabend in Auschwitz sollte der Schriftsteller Kurt Hielscher bestreiten, Autor von Büchern wie Burgen im Bozener Land. Er will am 18. Januar 1945 über Deutsche Kultur in Siebenbürgen reden. An diesem Tag jedoch beginnt die Evakuierung des Lagers. Zurück bleiben einige Tausend Kranke, die am 27. Januar von Soldaten der Roten Armee befreit werden." Source:  "Heitere Stunden in Auschwitz - Wie deutsche Künstler ihre mordenden Landsleute im besetzten Polen bei Laune hielten", Ernst Klee, Der Zeit, 25th of January 2007.

I decided to contact Auschwitz myself and ask whether Kurt Hielscher might have been scheduled to perform at Auschwitz before. It turned out, he was.

E-mail from Piotr Setkiewicz, director of Centre for Research at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, 19th of December 2019, a few days before we left for our holidays to the Czech Republic. Later I also found both Standortbefehl 2/44 and 1/45.

Through this e-mail, the contents of the article of Klee is confirmed. From the e-mail I also learned that Kurt Hielscher had been scheduled before: already in January 1944. I assume this presentation has taken place, because there's no note about any cancellation. So, Kurt Hielscher indeed must have been in Auschwitz. I asked the director of the research center of Auschwitz, mister Piotr Setkiewicz if it was possible or not that Kurt Hielscher knew what was going on in the cocetration camp? Within two days he answered: "The Kameradschaftsheim was located about 150 meters from the Auschwitz I (Stammlager) base camp and over 1 kilometer from the gas chambers in Birkenau. Everyone visiting Auschwitz at that time could certainly pay attention to the smoke and the unbearable stench of burned bodies. If such a person was inquisitive and asked questions, he would receive the answer that the smell comes from crematoria, where the bodies of prisoners who died of natural causes, such as diseases, are burned, to avoid epidemics. Of course, we do not know if Hielscher was so inquisitive." 

Perhaps he could have been led straight to the house without getting a glimpse of how we got to know the camp? Maybe he knew, but was afraid to resist a request for a performance? Maybe it was a way for Kurt Hielscher to earn some money? Maybe he was a nazi regime enthusiast?

At the time, late Autumn 2019, I had already planned a trip with my family to go to the Czech Republic for the Christmas holidays and I wanted to take some more pictures from Kurt Hielscher on the way, in Germany. Now, with the 1941 edition, I also got the chance to make photos in the Czech Republic, even in Prague. I thought that would be so cool. 

So, what was I supposed to do now?

I decided to make the photos and decide whether I would proceed or not later. And again, I was caught by the magic of stepping into the past, in a photo that needed to be rephotographed. And I decided to proceed. With mixed feelings though. Rephotographing the photos in Prague and other places in the Czech Republic became a succes for me. I noticed the photos being received by the public on social media very well and no though questions were asked. A first post about Český Krumlov in the (private) Facebook group Everything Czech - History, Culture, Music, Food, Arts & More received 279 likes and 26 positive comments, so I was happy I went on, again with mixed feelings though.

In Oktober 2004, I went to the Memorial-Muzeum in Auschwitz-Birkenau myself. It was more or less a surreal ending of our 3 months trip to Istanbul and back. With the campervan we stayed for the night at the entrance so we were the first visitors that day. With all the fog it made it surreal. Now, I try to imagine what the circumstances would have been like when Kurt Hilescher visited Auschwitz to perform for nazi soldiers. What did he see, notice, knew? Was he free to decide for himself to go there or not? Was he free to write the preface he wanted to write? Maybe, maybe not? I am afraid we will never know.

E-mail from Kurt Hielscher's grandson Chris H. Hamann, 5th of April 2018.

And then there is the grandson. He let me know by e-mail on the 5th of April 2018 that Kurt Hielscher had a daughter who's husband, the father of his grandson was killed in WWII in Russia. With the ending of the war, he and his mother ended up in West Berlin, while Kurt Hielscher remained in East Germany. They could not visit each other anymore because of the Cold War. The grandson does not have a living memory of his granddad Kurt Hielscher. At the time he still was a young child.

Others like my friend Wolfgang Henkel also thoroughly investigated the life of Kurt Hielscher. For him it was important that he could start his project with the knowledge that Kurt Hielscher had nothing to do with the nazi regime, but Wolfgang Henkel knew about the prefaces of his books and the article of Klee, but he did not know what I found out that Kurt Heilscher probably indeed visited Auschwitz. 

Making up my mind

While becoming a careerphotographer and meeting the rulers. A patriot not a nazi. A survivor that couldn't overcome the disappointment of losing his work. Now I think that Kurt Hielscher is a photographer above everything else, an ambitious one, an amateur who became a career photographer, who liked the attention of the famous, who was proud of the numbers of copies he sold, and a patriot, he loved his country. But there is no evidence that he was a Nazi. I do believe that he was disappointed when he learned that his negatives were lost, that his city of birth ended up in another country after WW I, that he was concerned about the state of Germany after losing the First World War. The romantic idea of a hiker, an adventurer interested in other cultures, was kind of lost though. But is this not also more about his work than about the man himself? I feel I am still struggling with this.

Painting from Kurt Hielscher with a copy from Das Unbekannte Spanien, his first photo album.  The painting is from 1948 just before his death. Source


Photos from the entry in the Sterbebuch from the Lichtensteiner Kirche St. Laurentius - achieved on the 26th of November 2019 by e-mail from the Stadtmuseum Lichtenstein, Sachsen.

"... ähnliche Anfragen haben uns schon mehrmals erreicht. Auf der Suche nach Spuren von Kurt Hielscher haben wir daraufhin ermittelt, dass er am 10. Juli 1948 im Lichtensteiner Krankenhaus verstorben ist und auf dem Friedhof St. Laurentius begraben wurde. Im Sterbebucheintrag der Kirche stand: wohnhaft in Waldenburg, Mittelstadt 9. Waldenburg liegt hier in der Nähe. Warum er nun aber in Lichtenstein beerdigt wurde und nicht in Waldenburg, ist nicht bekannt."- e-mail from the Stadtmuseum Lichtenstein, Sachsen, 26th of November 2019.

"Kurt Hielscher gestorben", Neues Deutschland, 25th of July 1948, nr.171, seite 5. The only obituary following Kurt Hielscher's death I could find. Remarkably Neues Deutschland, the official newspaper of the Zentralkomitee of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands, did not note anything of a possible dark side of Kurt Hielscher. 

Mittelstadt 9 in Waldenburg. The house where Kurt Hielscher lived till his death on July 10th, 1948.

Also about Kurt Hielscher, me and the origins of my project you can watch here at my lecture for the Geographical Society of Philadelphia on the 20th of November 2020.

Below: Coastline of the island of Rügen, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany, 29th of July 2020. Photo: Casper Molenaar. Kurt Hielscher made some nice photos here from the cliffs.

In the footsteps of  Kurt Hielscher