Kurt Hielscher's Romania photobook from 1933 is the last, but also the most rare one and maybe also the most impressive one. The huge amount of photos from Romania's "Volksleben", its folk life, portraits, and the high number of different places, the highlights as well as tiny jewels in distant villages makes this album balanced and exceptional. I believe it is a unique album for Romania in its time which makes it quite known and popular in Romania. This all makes the book quite expensive. I have seen copies for sale for over 400 USD, but 150 euros is not an exception.
With photos in neigbouring Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine or to be more precise Dobroedzja in today's Bulgaria, Bessarabia and Northern Maramureș in Ukraine, it is the Greater Romania of that time.
Me in front of Peleș Castle with a dog. Dogs were everwhere around at the time. Kurt Hielscher included three photos of Peleș Castle in his book.
In 2004 we made a trip all the way to Istanbul coming from The Netherlands. Early autumn we entered Romania via Giurgiu and went to București, crossed the Carpathian Mountains via Sinaia into Transsylvania where we visited Brașov, Sighișoara, Sibiu, Cluj-Napoca and then went into Maramureș Canton before leaving Romania to go westward to Hungary.
While checking the photos from Kurt Hielscher I realize how much more there's to see in this beautiful country.
It took me quite some time to get throught the 304 photos and find out where they were made. Often, Saxon names were used by Kurt Hielscher or names of villages were a littlebit different than the way they are noted nowadays in Google Maps and on Tripline, but in almost every photo I managed to find the right place. Now that I took a closer look at all the photos, one by one, I really would love to go back to Romania and try to rephotograph a lot of them. To be honest, I have only been once in Romania and that was during our 3 months of travelling through the Balkans in 2004. The analog photos I made during that trip are the ones I used here.
Sighișoara in Transsylvania
Photo: Casper Molenaar, 2004
When Kurt Hielscher received an invitation from the Romanian government to make a travel photobook for the country as he did for the other countries before, he had his doubts to accept the assignment. Others asked him what he could expect to find there. After he made his 25.000 km journey in 1931 and 1932 Kurt Hielscher concludes clearly in his preface: "My expectations were far exceeded. There were new surprises almost every day. These landscapes! Wild mountain formations in the Carpathians, lovely valleys in the friendly, graceful hill country of Transylvania; the broad Danube river with its narrow rock breakthrough in front of the Iron Gate, and the vastness of its delta; the lagoons and the silver coast on the shining sea; steppes in the Dobrudzja and fruit plains in Wallachia.
"My expectations were far exceeded. There were new surprises almost every day", Kurt Hielscher, 1933
What an abundance in diversity of architecture! Simple mud huts and stately farmhouses with richly carved gates; real royal palaces and gardens; Orthodox churches with exterior frescoes and altars bursting with gold; Fortified monasteries with huge walls; ornamental wooden churches with often needle-pointed tower roofs, and the growth of the many small fortified churches in Transylvania, which are unique in the world."
Landscape near Păltiniș near Sibiu in Transsylvania
Photo: Kurt Hielscher, 1933
I have two copies of the book, a French and a German edition. On this photo I am holding the 1938 German edition. It is a beautiful copy! The French edition does not mention a year of publication. Both have an introduction of poet and politician Octavian Goga. The German edition is dedicated to King Carol II of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen who was King of Romania at the time: from 1930 to September 1940.
Like Kurt Hielscher Octavian Goga is also born in 1881. His early poetry describes the beauty and hardship of the lives of Transsylvanian farmers. As a nationalist politician he strived for the unification of Transylvania and the Banat for a Greater Romania. Ocatavian Goga separated from the People's Party in 1932 and founded the National Agrarian Party (PNA), which was not only nationalist but also anti-Semitic.
Octavian Goga took up residence at Ciucea Castle in Transylvania after his resignation in February 1938. He suffered a stroke on May 5, 1938. He died two days later. His body was laid out in the Atheneum Palace in Bucharest, a building photographed by Kurt Hielscher. Adolf Hitler sent a large flower garland on behalf of Nazi Germany that adorned the glass lid of the coffin of Octavian Goga.
Key question: what does this tell about Kurt Hielscher? My answer would be that it is hard to say, because it is hard to look back closely to the timeline of those days. Events followed quickly upon one another while the photobook was a lasting proces for a while. In his preface, Octavian Goga reflects on the horrors of the First World War and the ongoing unrest at the time but he mainly focusses on the beauty and describes the history and diversity of the country, but still with a rather nationalistic and patriotic undertone as he finds a justification in the pre-WWI "small Romania" turning into "complete Romania" as a natural outcome of what history had in mind.
And then Kurt Hielscher himself in his preface as the patriot: "The encounter with the "Saxons" of Transylvania with their common sense and the tenacious adherence to Germanness with their high level of education and deep religiosity filled me with pride and joy and the certainty of our mission to be a bearer of culture, whatever earth we plow under whatever stars we dream." In the 1938 version of his book he adds a paragraph after this quote in which he describes how hard the times have been for the Germans since their arrival in the 12th Century, how they had to struggle and fight for their rights resuling in unique defense settlements. And then Kurt Hielscher shows himself againa s he used to be: the romantic discoverer of distant places enjoying authenticty and diversity: "But in addition
to the joy at work, I was grieved that the entire people of Romania are
threatened by a grave enemy; the gray cloud of the west approaches the culture
of this blessed land of sunshine; the dust of civilization that suffocates all
colorful life!" and "In this way
an artistically sensitive people will gradually lose their original face." "It seems to
me as if my book saves for later times what is slowly and inexorably doomed.
May the people of these mountains, valleys and plains keep their originality
and beauty for a long time to come!"
There are some really nice examples from others that do something with Kurt Hielscher's work in Romania. In the context of Romania's 100th anniversary there's the 100deani videoproject. What I am trying to do with photos, this project uses film to paint the contemporary picture of the old photos. They also let residents have their say.
And then you have the now and then photoproject of my friend Costin Gheorghe. His terrific rephotography of Kurt Hielscher's work you'll find here and he runs a page on Facebook too.
Old peasant from Arbora (Arbore), Suceava
Photo: Kurt Hielscher, 1933
Kurt Hielscher's portraits of people might be the best valued photos he made, especially the ones in his Romania and Spain photobook. I can't do much with these portraits when it is about rephotographing places, but I really enjoy it to see others are enthusiastic and inspired by the work of Kurt Hielscher as well. Here a selection:
Below, photos from the main square in Brașov, Cluj-Napoca, the entrance to and a photo from the Merry Cemetery in Săpânța, Maramureş, having a rest at the side of the road when driving into Maramureş, two photos from the open air museum in Sibiu and last one from Sighișoara, all digitalized analog photos from early autumn 2004 when we travelled through Romania from the south to the north.