During the First World War, Spain was neutral. On a study trip to Spain, when the war broke out, Kurt Hielscher got stuck. He stayed in Spain during the whole war and decided to make the best of it by traveling around and making a lot of photos that eventually turned into his book with a selection of 304 photos in it published in 1922. This book and his lectures and exhibitions made him famous, and he received invitations from other European countries to make a similar book. During the Second World War, his negatives were destroyed due to Leipzig’s bombings by the allied forces. After the war, his work fell into oblivion.
As a student of Eastern European Studies, I found an old photobook in a second-hand bookstore in Amsterdam. It was from German photographer Kurt Hielscher (1881-1948). In it were 192 stunning photos of 1926 Yugoslavia in copper deep print, which looks amazing, almost like 3D shining like gold. It was quite expensive, and therefore I decided to do something with it. What? That was obvious: try to rephotograph the photos in it. One thing led to another, and now I have all Kurt Hielscher’s photobooks of several European countries such as Spain, Germany, and Italy and the ambition to make them all. Due to COVID-19, the project came to a standstill. A trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina had to be canceled last March, but I cannot wait to move on. Here’s my selection!
You can find Casper Molenaar on the web:
Kurt Hielscher was an interbellum period photographer who has managed to capture some of the most interesting objects in Europe before WWII
#1 City Gate, Trogir, Croatia, 1926 vs. The 24th Of April 2019
What happened to the lion? Of course, that’s the key question here. I did not know the answer when I took this photo for the first time in 2003 when I had just received the photobook of Kurt Hielscher as a birthday gift. Now I do know. It happened on the 1st of December, 1932. The Venetian lions were seen as political symbols instead of monuments from the past. At the time, the Venetian lions’ presence was used for propaganda for territorial claims on Dalmatia. Eight stone Venetian lions on old public buildings and the Trogir City walls were damaged by a group of young Yugoslav nationalists that day. It had a strong impact on the public and aggravated the already bad Yugoslav-Italian relations at the time.
#2 Forum Romanum, Rome, Italy, 1925 vs. 2016
The differences between the impressive Temple of Saturn at the Forum Romanum in Rome in Italy between 1925 when Kurt Hielscher took his photo and 91 years later when I did are not as big as the changes in the 1500 years before. The original Temple of Saturn (497 BC) is one of the oldest temples in Rome and was rebuilt in 42 BC and again in the fourth century AD after a devastating fire, hence the inscription: “Senatus Populus Que Romanus Incendio Consumptum Restitvit,” “Destroyed by fire, Restored by the Senate and the People of Rome.” The temple housed the aerarium, where Romans’ reserves of gold and silver were stored. It is truly an amazing place where history comes back to life, with only a small portion of imagination needed.
#3 Bled, Slovenia, 1926 vs. 2018
Today’s Cerkev Marijinega Vnebovzetja, Church of the Assumption of Mary, has stood on Lake Bled since the 17th century after a fire destroyed the previous church in 1509. The 54-meter-high clock tower catches your eye most of the time wandering around the stunning 6-kilometer lake, next to the other eyecatcher: the 11th-century-built Bled castle on the 130-meter-high rocky hill from which Kurt Hielscher also took a photo. I have been here several times, even as a kid, but only tried to take this photo two years ago in wintertime. It was already getting dark, and my kids lost their patience when they decided to bomb me with snowballs when I was trying to find the right angle in the bushes. They had great fun!
#4 Ponte Dei Sospiri, The Bridge Of Sighs In Venice, Italy, 1925 vs. 2018
On the day of Carnival’s finale in Venice on the 13th of February 2018, there was a pleasant temperature, sunshine, and less crowdedness than I expected. I managed to get a moment to take this photo. At the time, I did not know I was in the footsteps of Kurt Hielscher because I bought his 1925 photobook from Italy later. So I call this a lucky shot of the 1600-1630-constructed Ponte Dei Sospiri taken from the Ponte Della Paglia just around the corner of Saint Marco square at the Canal Grande. The Bridge is a connection between the Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) and the prison. Convicts had to walk across this bridge before being locked up in the dungeons, and its name refers to their sighing when they realized they had seen daylight for the last time crossing the bridge. Casanova and Galileo Galilei were held in this prison.
#5 Perast, Montenegro, 1926 vs. 2018
Halfway the breathtaking Bay of Kotor, your eye will be caught by Perast and the tiny islands with its monasteries just offshore. The boulevard with its bars, restaurants, and souvenir shops is just a few hundred meters up to this church; the 17th-century-built Crkva Gospa od Ružarije. The summer heat will prevent most tourists from going up the steep stairs. Air conditioning and shade are a must here, but the views are rewarding, and Perast still gives a feeling of authenticity.
#6 Limburg An Der Lahn, Germany, 1924 vs. 2019
Our first stop on our last Christmas holiday trip on our way to the Czech Republic was picturesque Limburg an der Lahn. We parked our camper van at the opposite shore from the Lahn river facing the city center and its impressive Dom and Castle. It was a short walk to the Alte Lahnbrücke, from which it appeared that Kurt Hielscher took his photo some 96 years before. It is unknown when the first church was built here, but its current shape dates from 1180. On the night of the 28th to 29th of February 1929, the west wing of the Castle was hit by a big fire. The Dom had some damage too, but not as severe as the Castle. The fire brigade had to pump water from the Lahn to the castle. Due to the extreme cold, a hole had been made in the Lahn’s ice, which was up to one meter thick, to suck out extinguishing water that later froze on the ruins of the wall. A total of 1.2 million liters of water were pumped out of the Lahn in almost 15 hours. Only the walls of the Castle remained upright; the rest was destroyed with the book inventory of the library on the ground floor. Restoration works started soon and were finished in 1935. Kurt Hielscher also took a photo of the Castle in 1924, which you can see on my Facebook page.
#7 Puente Nuevo, Ronda, Andalucía, Spain, 1914-’16 vs. 2019
In April 2019, I was in Ronda in Andalucía to take this photo German photographer Kurt Hielscher (1881-1948) already took over a hundred years ago. These photos also tell the story of a dramatic event that happened in Ronda in July 1917. The houses with the watermills in the old photos vanished due to a huge rockslide killing 15 people. The Puente Nuevo, the New Bridge, is one of three bridges that span the deep Tajo de Ronda gorge with the river Guadalevín. The gorge is 120 meters deep in some places, but here, the bridge has a height of 98 meters. The bridge’s construction began in 1735, but five years later, the unfinished bridge collapsed, killing 50 workers. The construction resumed in 1751, and the bridge was completed in 1793.
#8 Quedlinburg, Germany, 1924 vs. 2020
Nowadays, the Tourist Information Office is housed here within this tiny house at Finkenherd. A tourist train is passing on the left. According to oral history, the area surrounding the house is considered to be the place where the Saxon Duke Heinrich learned that he had been elected German king while catching birds—finches, hence the name “Finkenherd.” When I showed the original photo from Kurt Hielscher, the tourist information employee told me that they had a postcard for sale of this photo, but that it was sold out at the moment. In the back, you’ll see the changes in the Quedlinburger Dom. Both towers were damaged due to artillery fire at the end of WWII. From 1947 to 1950, the spires were replaced by lower towers. In the photo, you can only see one tower from this standpoint. The new towers would suit the Romanesque style of the church better, the idea was.
#9 Dubrovnik And The Island Of Lokrum, 1926 vs. 2019
Dubrovnik is about the walls, the fortresses, but also about its roofs (and not about Game of Thrones, if you’d ask me). The roofs tell the stories of the last war in the ‘90s of the 20th century. Within the city walls, one can distinguish the new ones, the ones damaged during the war, and the old ones, the ones that remained undamaged. Within the walls, all the roofs are restored. In front of this photo, however, there’s one roof half-collapsed, which leaves the question of whether this one was damaged during the war or collapsed due to antiquity? The photo is taken from a viewpoint some 450 meters upstairs from Pile Gate, a calm place when I was there. I guess most tourists dive into the city on arrival and do not make the effort to go up for a steep walk to Gornji Kono street near the Jadranska Cesta, the main road passing Dubrovnik.
#10 Ljubljana Castle, Slovenia, 1926 vs. 2018
The next day, on Valentine’s Day, we went to white fairy-tale Slovenia, and here, I brought the Yugoslavia photobook from Kurt Hielscher. I am sure it will not be the last time I will get into the footsteps of Kurt Hielscher in snow, especially in Austria, where there are some challenging photos to take. Kurt Hielscher was a good mountaineer. The present appearance of Ljubljana Castle was shaped after the 1511 earthquake, but remnants of the first settlers of the area date back to the late 2nd millennium BC. Since 2006, it is possible to go up to Castle Hill with a funicular, and I would recommend doing that because you will be treated with some stunning views of the city and the mountains behind it during its short ride to the 376-meter-high top of the hill. A friend from Ljubljana told me she wasn’t aware of all the changes of the castle over time that can be seen here between both photos.
#11 Charles Bridge, Prague, Czech Republic, (Published In) 1941 vs. 2020
What a great feeling to step out of the tram on Prague Castle hill, stroll around the complex, and then walk all the way down to the Charles Bridge and then look back up to the Castle again and take this photo. Though I had been here already almost 30 years ago, and again in 1999, I was still overwhelmed by all the beauty of this city and its views. It seems like one could take off and fly like a bird from spire to spire. The bridge originates from 1357, or, to be more exact, from the 9th of July at 5:31 am when King Charles IV laid the foundation stone. 30 statues embellish the 10-meter-wide and 516-meter-long iconic bridge over the Vltava river. Kurt Hielscher published this photo in a 1941 edition, but I do not know when exactly this photo was taken.
#12 The Castle Of Alcalá De Guadaíra, Spain, 1914-’19 vs. 2019
While wondering what it would have been like to live here in Alcalá de Guadaíra near Sevilla in Spain over a hundred years ago, I not only stepped into the footsteps of Kurt Hielscher, but also of these children. What were the conditions in which these children lived at the time? Today, a whole new neighborhood was built in front of the Castillo de Alcalá de Guadaíra. The houses are small and one-fold as if the children’s children of these children built plain houses here and started a living. The city’s population has increased nearly eightfold here in the past 100 years, and I could notice that the traffic was quite heavy here. In the 13th century, the castle used to act as a defense line for nearby Sevilla bordering the Kingdom of Granada. It must have been a quiet place with some 9,000 living souls when Kurt Hielscher was here.
#13 Kamerlengo Castle, Trogir, Croatia, 1926 vs. 2019
It really is a must to visit Trogir when driving along the stunning Croatian coast. One simply cannot pass up so much beauty. Kurt Hielscher took eight photos here, not without reason. My first visit was in 2003. I remember that cars were still allowed to park in front of the mid-15th-century-built castle. Today, the surroundings of the castle are a pretty quiet part of the city center, except maybe when there is a match on the football field behind the castle.
#14 Litoměřice, Czech Republic, (Photo Published In) 1941 vs. 2020
Leaving Prague, Litoměřice was our last stop before entering Germany again when everything was still normal at the beginning of this year. It was a beautiful morning because everything was white here in the northern part of the Czech Republic due to the fog and the frost on the trees and the grass. The sun was fighting to come through, but did not win this battle this morning. It appeared that Litoměřice had a beautiful main square and a wider center to stroll around with shops, cafés, and restaurants, therefore a place with more to see and nicer to hang around for a while than I expected. In the photo, one can see the prominent Oblastní Muzeum v Litoměřicích; we did not visit, but just enjoyed the scenery of the square and the city. After we left Litoměřice, it was just three-quarters of an hour drive to Germany, where the world surrounding us suddenly turned green.
#15 San Sebastian, Spain, 1914-’19 vs. 2019
Besides the food, the famous pintxos, San Sebastián offers terrific beaches and impressive views from all sides. Descending Mount Ulía where we spent the night in the camper van, it was my last chance to take the photo Kurt Hielscher took here over a hundred years ago. I stopped the van at the side of the small road, grabbed my camera, jumped out of the van, and ran barefoot into an empty restaurant. Later, I learned it was Restaurante Mirador De Ulia, quite a luxurious restaurant, it seemed. The tables were neatly covered. I took the photos through the glass windows of the restaurant. The view was overwhelming. When I came back to reality, I quickly took 6 photos trying to avoid the reflection of myself in the window. The old arena was demolished in 1973. 25 years later, in 1998, a new bullfighting arena was opened at a different location in San Sebastián.
#16 Grofčanski Most, Kratovo, Macedonia, 1926 vs. 2018
This place was not so hard to find in Kratovo since it is one of its characteristics, unlike the other 6 (!) beautiful photos Kurt Hielscher took here. Unfortunately, the time I could spend here was limited, and I did not manage to find all the places in the photos. I would love to come back one day and spend a whole week here because Kratovo has a pleasant, laid-back atmosphere, and its authenticity grabbed me at first sight. Built in the crater of the extinct volcano Kratovo, it is known for its towers and bridges. The Ottomans built the four stone bridges over the Tabačka river between the 17th and 19th centuries. Grofčanski Most is 30 m long, 4 m wide, and 8 m high.
#17 Potes, Spain, 1914-’19 vs. 2018
Potes is a beautiful village which we used for exploring the nearby and also beautiful mountains of the Picos de Europa in Cantabria in the North of Spain. Kurt Hielscher included four photos of Potes, over a century old, in his photo book from Spain. In this photo, you can see the Casa de Cultura de Potes with the Museo Cartigrafico Juan de la Cosa housed in it. One funny detail is the coat of arms that can only be seen in the first photo, but not in mine. Is it gone? No. Has it been removed? Yes! It has been replaced above the door on the right side, but you cannot see it in this photo.
#18 Šibenik, Croatia, 1926 vs. 2019
Šibenik might be my favorite coastal city in Croatia. Next to the eye-catching UNESCO World Heritage Cathedral of St. James (1431-1535) here on the left and its narrow cobbled streets in the pedestrian zone, people live their lives here and it offers quite a relaxed atmosphere, maybe not as focused on tourism as other coastal towns in Croatia. The dome of the Cathedral was severely damaged by shellings in the war of the ‘90s, but has been reconstructed very well. Now, it seems like nothing happened here. Most visible changes are to be seen at the Riva, the boulevard, and these changes are mostly due to the bombings of the allied forces in WWII.
#19 Sinan Pasha Mosque, Prizren, Kosovo, 1926 vs. 2018
Prizren is a small, authentic, but vivacious city in Kosovo. The walk uphill to the castle ruins is a must, especially at sunset, as the city view is very rewarding. There are plenty of historical and religious buildings and bars and restaurants, and not so many tourists yet. At least there weren’t when I was there in June 2018, and I believe a visit is worth it. More importantly: it is unforgettable! People are very hospitable. On its Bistrica or Lumbardhi river every late spring in June, there’s the Bunar Fest where you can show how brave you are by floating down the river using inner tubes of tractor tires. Don’t forget your helmet!