Growing up in Europe during World War 2, Klaus T. Moser-Maync’s childhood narrates more like a chapter out of a history book than most youthful recollections. “I was born the day Russia invaded Poland on Sept. 17, 1939. I was also born the same month Hitler invaded Poland. I’m a true child of the war,” he says. Originally from East Prussia, Klaus and his family migrated to East Germany after the province was lost in the war. Influenced by his brother who came to America on a math scholarship, Klaus eventually followed suit, pursuing a successful career as a photographic printer in New York.
Shortly after coming to America, Klaus was drafted in the Army and stationed in South Korea. During his stint in 1964, Klaus took a trip down the east coast, which ultimately brought him to Jeju. “In the Army I got two weeks of R&R. I was in the band; I was a trumpet player,” he says. “When I told the other guys I was going to stay and travel in Korea they said, ‘Are you crazy? What is there to see?’”
During his travels Klaus photographed his journey, not only proving there was plenty to see, but also capturing a glimpse into what life was like in the Land of the Morning Calm before the frenzy of development took over. He’s since sold his work, featured it in a museum in Upstate New York, and had it printed in a book, but ultimately wants to give the photographs back to the country they originated. “I’m looking for a place where I can either sell or donate these photos. I want to do that in Korea, most likely. Not here in America because I imagine these photos are more meaningful to Koreans,” he says.
Until then, Klaus’ images of Korea in 1964 can be found at: www.kmoser.com/korea
How were you able to leave East Germany?
In those days East and West Germany were divided. There was a border and you couldn’t cross, but Berlin had a special status. It was also divided into four zones and the Allies made an agreement that you could go from one zone to the other. What happened was a lot of people in East Germany were dissatisfied with the regime, so they decided to leave. There were also a lot of rumors going around that Berlin would be closed up too.
Of course you had to keep a low profile, you couldn’t go from East Berlin to West Berlin with a lot of baggage or the police would come and incarcerate you. So I just had a briefcase and I walked from the East to the West, as simple as that. Then from West Berlin I took a plane to West Germany where I waited six months for my visa. A couple weeks after I came to America, we heard the news they built the Berlin Wall. I felt really lucky to have gotten out. My parents of course still stayed and they were OK.
What did you do once you came to America?
I lived with my brother for a couple months, but he was outside of New York. I wanted to break into the photography business and I had to commute every day and that was not for me. After a couple months, I moved to Manhattan. I had absolutely no English knowledge because in the Russian zone you didn’t learn English. My first job I was lucky, because I worked as an apprentice for a German photographer. That was how I was able to get my foot in the door. Then two years later I was drafted into the Army.
And that’s how you ended up in Korea?
Yes, I was there in 1964, at the end of 1963 to be precise. And I had just gotten married. I had met a woman before I was drafted, so while I was in basic training I married her. Then I got the assignment to go to Korea, and we decided to go together. We got a release to get married. It was difficult, but it was possible.
How were you able to make it work?
She had to come to Korea separately. I was only a Private, and I didn’t have any privileges for dependents. That only applied to the officers. If you wanted to bring your wife over, you had to pay for it yourself. We knew somebody else who had done the same thing, maybe a couple years before. They told us to get in touch with a family in Seoul where my wife could possibly stay. The husband worked for the government and lived in a Western-style house. My wife ended up living with them. I was stationed about 20 miles or so outside of Seoul towards the DMZ. On the weekends I was able to get to see her.
What did your wife do when she wasn’t spending time with you on the weekends?
My wife was an amateur musician. She got herself a job in the Korean philharmonic. She played with them and she traveled with them too. That’s how she spent her time in Korea, playing in the orchestra.
What was your experience like in Korea?
I was never in Asia before, so it was a great experience for me to see Korean culture. Koreans are really open people. Sure, they are reserved sometimes, but very generous. And they were always so helpful. When we were traveling, it was so easy. We just got on a bus and asked people where we could stay and they would let us stay with them for like five dollars a night. They were so honest. If we gave them money to buy something and told them to keep the change, they wouldn’t go for it. It was really something else.
How would you describe Korea during the time you were here in 1964?
It was very poor. Just to give an example, Ms. Kim, who was our landlady, would go to the market and buy just a couple slivers of meat. She showed us we could survive on a diet very low on meat. You have to understand, it was not much different from where I came from. When we left East Prussia it was wartime and we were extremely poor.
When I came to Korea and saw people living under poor standards, I could relate. I saw similarities. There were also the political similarities between East and West Germany and North and South Korea. They weren’t that different, you know.
How did you end up coming to Jeju?
In the Army I got two weeks of R&R. I was in the band; I was a trumpet player. When I told the other guys I was going to travel in Korea they said, “Are you crazy? What is there to see?” All these guys went to Japan because that’s where they thought it was happening. I told them, “I’m going to stay and travel in Korea and check it out.” And that’s what we did.
Where all did you go on your trip?
First we took a bus to the east coast and then we took the train all the way down to Busan. I just spoke to my wife a few minutes ago and she said, “Oh I remember Busan had great seafood.” Seafood was something I had never experienced before. I had never learned about it in Germany and I had just gotten to America and we didn’t have much money.
We went to a place right by the harbor and they served us. We didn’t know much Korean so we just pointed and were like, “I’ll take some of that.” It was just incredible.
What did you do after Busan?
We took a ferry to Jeju. When we got here, we stayed in a place that had a huge room with a mosquito net in the middle. They served us three meals and they were all the same. We didn’t mind it. We had gotten so used to the food by that time. We just enjoyed it. It didn’t make any difference that it was all the same because there was so much variety in each dish.
What do you recall from your time in Jeju?
At that point in our trip we didn’t have much time left. We basically traveled a little bit in the north. I remember we went to a beach and saw these older women who had dug their bodies into the sand. We could only see their heads. I still don’t know what they were doing.
At the time how was Jeju different than the mainland?
The only difference I could see was geologically, like the black sand. That was mind-boggling. And the stacked rock formations that you’d see on the beach. It was just like a different world. Of course it was very rural, but that was the same for a lot of areas in Korea at the time.
I have all these pictures of people collecting water, and when older Korean women see them, they say, “Oh yeah, I remember as a kid we always had to collect water.” That was a big thing. It shows you how in those days it was so undeveloped.
Has anyone ever contacted you and said they were in one of your pictures or recognized someone from your photography?
No, but I’m dying for someone on the Internet to see the group picture with all the children and come to me and say, “Hey, that’s me!” That picture was taken in an area of Seoul. I was just strolling around when I saw all these kids playing and I pulled out my camera.
What have you done with these photographs?
When I came back to America, I printed the photos and showed them in a museum in upstate New York. Unfortunately my negatives were all lost. They were burned in a fire, but I still have the contact sheets, so they can be scanned. I have a book that I put most of them in and my Web site has all the photographs.
The photos you see on the Web site don’t really do justice to the quality. First of all most of them are 60 x 20. They’re huge prints and high quality.
What is your wish for this set of photography?
I don’t want to sit on these photos forever. Ultimately I’m looking for a place where I can either sell or donate these photos. I want to do that in Korea, most likely. Not here in America because I imagine these photos are more meaningful to Koreans.
How did your trip to Korea affect your profession?
I sort of looked upon that whole project as a learning experience, from a picture taking point of view, but also from a printing point of view, because I later became a photographic printer.
What did you hope to capture in your photographs during your time in Korea?
I wish I had the foresight that I have now. Simply, to me they were the things I saw that attracted me. Henri Cartier-Bresson coined the famous phrase, “The decisive moment.” I sort of came out of that mold, capturing the moment where everything falls into place, and every element in the photo is in the right place. I experience the world through photographing it. I’m glad I did, because if I didn’t have these pictures I probably wouldn’t remember so much about Korea. They’ve helped me reflect and retain the past.
Other pictures taken on Jeju:
“This picture was taken on Jeju. That girl was so pretty. Some people told me that Asians didn’t want to be photographed, but I never had that. They were always very open to me.”