Forest Preserve

The Czech settlers of the Banat

01 January 2015
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THE STORY GOES THAT, in the early 1800s, a Romanian lumber merchant named Mad’arli was looking for cheap labour to clear forests in the eastern stretches of the Banat, a geographical region that straddles the modern border between Serbia and Romania. He sent recruiting agents west, to Bohemia and Moravia, which today fall under the Czech Republic. Promised land and wages, about two hundred Czech families made the two-month journey, and arrived in a remote stretch of the Carpathian mountains, near the Danube River, in what is now south-west Romania. Once a certain amount of timber was felled, however, the merchant vanished. The Czechs decided to remain in the six villages they had built, to live off the land and bring up families in their new log cabins.

The way of life in this handful of villages has not changed dramatically in the two centuries since. This is now a large part of their draw for tourists—especially Czech tourists, who come looking for a glimpse of their own past. “Our fellow countrymen have preserved the customs and traditions they brought with them from their home,” a tourism website advertising the region declares. “In these villages you can speak Czech, housewives will offer you Czech pastries and schnitzels, and in the evening you can relax with a quilt just like at grandmother’s. During your stay you can help the farmer rake hay, cut and thresh grain, bake bread or use a stone gristmill.”

It was that same historical curiosity that drew the Czech-origin photographer Iva Zimova to the region. Zimova spent about two months in these villages in 1992, and employed her camera, she said, as a sort of time machine for capturing the way her forebears might have lived. She participated in the villagers’ daily lives, joining them in working the fields, grazing sheep, and celebrating social events and holidays. In keeping with the anachronism of the place, Zimova used an analogue camera and black-and-white film. The resulting images seem to cheat time: though now over two decades old, they could, with some allowance, just as well have been taken 150 years ago, or today.

Iva Zimova is a freelance photographer of Czech origin who lives in Canada. Her work has been exhibited across the world, including in Ukraine, China, Canada, the Czech Republic, Ethiopia, Russia, Georgia, the United States and Mexico.

Keywords: culture history tradition Czech Republic farming