Discovering Novi Bečej: Stories, people, history

By the paths of the past: Discover the rich history, interesting events and unforgettable people who have shaped Novi Bečej through time, as we return together to the heart of this beautiful city on the banks of the Tisza.

The Water Carriers of Novi Bečej

Novi Bečej, like all other towns in Vojvodina at that time, lacked a water supply system. People used water from artesian wells for drinking, and a significant portion of the population relied on the waters of the Tisa River. Novi Bečej had four artesian wells, while Vranjevo had five to six, making a total of about ten wells for 16,350 residents.

The Tisa River water for drinking was exclusively used by working-class and agricultural households, primarily Serbs in Novi Bečej and Hungarians in Vranjevo. If using river water for drinking is considered a sign of backwardness, then the question arises: why were Serbs in Novi Bečej considered more backward, and Hungarians in Vranjevo less so?

Certainly, the primitive nature of the time influenced the widespread use of this water, but that wasn't the main reason. It's essential not to overlook the fact that the Tisa water, like other rivers, was much cleaner then than it is today. However, it still required some minimal purification before mass and daily consumption. Even back then, cities like Szeged and Szolnok, located on the Tisa, with their sewage flowing into the river, were significant urban centers. Additionally, Tisa's tributaries, such as the Mureș in Romania, passed by large cities like Arad, contributing to water pollution. This made the river water not advisable for drinking without any form of purification.

We were told that the rapid water flow quickly neutralized the mentioned pollutants, making the water clean and suitable for drinking. Readers can judge for themselves the accuracy of such claims.

Primitive habits, coupled with established routines, undoubtedly played a role, but they were not the primary reason. Older people had their habits, but why did the younger generation in such families also drink such water?

The actual reason for using Tisa water for drinking lay in the fact that the modest resources of the municipalities at the time allowed only a few artesian wells, mostly located farther from the Tisa River in parts of Novi Bečej and Vranjevo. An exception was the center of Novi Bečej, where there was an artesian well not far from the Tisa, serving the urban population.

Water was carried on "obranice" or "vodonoše." Some argue that the correct term is "obramica," but differences in terminology exist. Carrying water was a strenuous task, with each bucket holding 15-20 liters, meaning 30-40 kg was carried on the shoulder. If the well was 1-2 kilometers away, it wasn't uncommon for the term "obranica" to originate from shoulder injuries. Since wells were scarce, most families had to use Tisa water, especially those closer to the river. In Novi Bečej near the Tisa, the population was predominantly Serbian, while in Vranjevo, it was mostly Hungarian, explaining why Serbs in Novi Bečej and Hungarians in Vranjevo used Tisa water for drinking. After World War II, river water was no longer used for drinking.

To facilitate drawing water from the Tisa, municipalities built four rafts with fences, known as "vodonoše" or water carriers.

A "vodonoša" was a raft, measuring 4x4 meters, fenced on all four sides, with an entrance in the middle of the side facing the shore. In the middle of the "vodonoša," there was a one-square-meter opening through which water was drawn. One "vodonoša" was located towards the pig alley, officially known as Čika Ljubina Street, another towards Jaša Tomić Street, the third in front of the ferry, between the floating bath and the ferry from Svetozar Miletić Street, and the fourth at the end of Gradište, serving the people of Vranjevo.

The municipality took care of maintaining these "vodonoše" to ensure they provided a safe place for drawing water. Not only were the rafts maintained but also the approach. In areas where the shore was stone-lined, like the first two mentioned, stone stairs led to the "vodonoša." From the stairs to the "vodonoša," there was a wooden walkway with side rails, and at the bottom, crossbars were nailed to the planks for easier descent, especially when the buckets were full. This walkway was diagonally placed, sloping towards the "vodonoša," posing a real danger during winter when water spilled over the frozen wooden floor.

"Vodonoše" served other, illegal purposes as well. During the summer, children would use them for sunbathing or jumping into the Tisa from their fences. Older folks disapproved, as it damaged the "vodonoša," so it was common for every woman who came for water to scold and chase the children away, but not for long. As soon as she left, the kids were back on the "vodonoša." This continued as long as the "vodonoše" existed.

Artesian wells and "vodonoše" played a significant role in the lives of Novi Bečej residents. They provided drinking water for cooking and laundry, but their importance also extended to being meeting places and hubs for exchanging the latest local news.

While it may be tempting to condemn their "usefulness" outright, considering it at least from the perspective of the ordinary woman of that time makes it a vital necessity. One of the first morning tasks for every housewife, if there was no younger female family member, was to fetch water. Despite being a challenging job, people went for water every morning. Even if the well was far, the remaining water from the previous day was poured into pots and tubs just to empty the buckets before heading to the well or the Tisa.

At first glance, this water-fetching routine may seem unusual, but fundamentally, it was a justified and straightforward desire of an ordinary person. It was not only the desire of a young girl or a newlywed but also a need for women in their mature years. The life of a peasant was harsh and laborious. Spending the entire day in the field or at home without leaving the house from Sunday to Sunday meant that the well and the Tisa, or "vodonoša," represented an outing and the only contact with the outside world. So, even if it sometimes "overlapped," it was always the same desire to hear, experience, and let off steam for that brief time, sharing as much as possible about others' lives. In patriarchal rural families, women, especially young girls and daughters-in-law, had no chance to speak with anyone throughout the day about anything other than the work they were doing. Hence, the desire to hear how others live, to hear and tell what they heard or experienced, to exaggerate or devalue something. All this happened at the well or on the "vodonoša."

Many young girls took their first steps toward a new life, towards marriage, in such places. Here, on the well or on the raft, a matchmaker would offer her services, casually talking about her relative or neighbor's son. The one being talked to blushed, unable to hide it from the cunning eye of the matchmaker, who, as if suddenly remembering that her interlocutor was of marriageable age, would inquire: "Oh, look, you're also of marriageable age. What do you think about him? Wouldn't he be a good host? And his mother is so kind..." The girl hesitated to accept the proposal immediately, but eagerly awaited the question, responding as a decent person would: "Well, I don't know. I haven't thought about it, and I don't know what my parents would say..." Yet, this was enough for the matchmaker to start her matchmaking.

Many marriages recommended in this way at the well or on the "vodonoša" were later successfully contracted. However, there were cases where existing marriages were shaken or, as we say, "poljuljani" (disturbed). Here, people found out how much someone owed, what someone was buying or selling, who quarreled with whom, who had a new child, whose cow calved, or whose geese hatched goslings—everything that happened. Of course, everyday gossip, overflowing joy, anger, and everything, absolutely everything, could not be overlooked.

From the perspective of a city dweller with access to all means of information and communication, spending eight hours at the workplace, where interaction with others and their problems is a daily occurrence, and even before arriving at the workplace, stories abound on buses and trams—even if one does not directly participate, ears are not plugged, and eyes are not closed.

In the end, there may be no real difference between what rural young women and girls talk about at the well or on the "vodonoša" and what urban women and girls discuss at work or any other workplace, not only women but also men from urban areas. We will easily notice this daily similarity, not just similarity but identity. The difference is that the village is not on the "agenda" for us; instead, it's the people around us. They are the subject of our conversations, which we don't call gossiping, and if we analyze them from all sides, even from the least popular angles. However, the difference lies in the fact that these were ordinary, modest people, and their life's content and interest were within those frames. In contrast, urban residents today exhibit extravagance and petty malice.

Therefore, the reason to remember this seemingly episodic moment, everyday life of our inhabitants from the 1930s, is to draw parallels with the present. We will see that only the places and the objects of our daily conversations have changed, and modesty has given way to ostentation. What has changed significantly is that the desires of those people were incomparably more modest, so their conversations, or gossip, had more modest boundaries, even though they represented an essential need. In contrast to the needs of today's individuals who have transistors, televisions, tape recorders, phones, and everything else that makes them free from neighbors and the environment, yet in this everyday life, they haven't strayed far from those of fifty years ago.

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