How Bewi and her mother lost their hard-earned tobacco money (by Elisabeth Meiszner)

The tobacco farmers were people to be reckoned with back in the good old days. They even had their own Tobacco Farmers' Ball during Shrovetide carnival, and that's saying something! But the whole year was taken up with tobacco growing. The compost beds had to be set up in March already. Three to five metres long, depending on how much space there was, one metre wide and one metre deep. The compost had to be six to eight inches above the ground and boards were set up all around the bed, and then the bed was ready for the plants. The fine tobacco seeds were then sprinkled evenly over the bed. The cleverer women sowed kohlrabi, cabbage, tomato and other such seeds at one end of the bed so they could harvest early vegetables. The seedlings were covered overnight with reed matting and this was removed early in the morning as soon as the sun came up so that the plants would grow quickly. We watered them with a watering can and rose three or four times a day, and within three weeks we already began to lift the larger tobacco plants and take them out into the fields. That was hard work, too. The tobacco had to be planted along a line. The line was as long as the field itself and rags were tied to the line every two feet and the tobacco had to be planted against these rags.

The tobacco fields were supervised by a State controller. Woe betide if there were ever any show-offs around! One tobacco farmer had to rip out 50 rows of plants and replant them, just because they weren't running parallel on all sides. Once we began planting, we would take 2,000 plants out into the fields every day. By the time we'd finished planting them, we could barely stand.In between times, we had to keep checking the rows and repairing them. Also, the best way of passing time on three or four Sunday afternoons during the planting season, was spent catching the May bug grubs in the tobacco fields. Two or three people would take part in the planting out. At each end of the line, a two-foot long stick was tied to the line and stuck into the ground to keep the line straight. So two people would see to the sticks and the planting, while another would fetch water from the well dug especially for this, and water the plants so they would start growing straight away.

Sometimes we hadn't even finished planting half a Joch, or a whole Joch (one Joch = ~1.4 acres), depending on how much tobacco we had sown, before we'd have to start picking the first plants. Once the field was full of plants, we had to keep going back to replace any missing plants, and when the tobacco was fully grown, then we would begin hoeing. We hoed it twice and heaped up the earth around the roots once, and then the work would be over.

As soon as the hoeing was over, we would begin picking the tobacco leaves. First, we would break off the three lowest leaves of each plant; they were the 'sand' leaves (Sandbledder). We would be in the field at 5 o'clock every morning so that we would finish picking the leaves by 9 a.m. because when the sun grew hot the leaves withered and we couldn't carry on. From every plant, the three bottom leaves would always be broken off, right up to the smallest leaves at the top. The middle leaves were the 'Stock' leaves and the little ones at the top were the 'Spitz' leaves. Once we had collected an armful of leaves, we would lay them onto heaps and after picking they were tied together into bales. We would pick 30 to 40 bales in a morning. Then they were lined up in the tobacco shed or in the gangway. Sometimes we had help from the neighbours or from the children who often liked to earn a few pennies. In the yard, where the sun shone nice and hot, there was a stand made from the tree trunk and a pole and that's where thestrings of tobacco werehung up, threaded with a 16 inch needle.

If the tobacco is to turn a nice golden colour and have a good aroma, then the sun has to shine as hot as it does back home in the Banat. If it had rained there as much as it does here (in Germany) where we now live, then we would never have been able to dry the tobacco. Every time it rained, we had to move the tobacco into the shed, and back out again as soon as the rain had stopped. During the night, too. It was autumn by the time the picking season was over. When the last string load had been taken into the shed, it would all stay hanging there until after our 'Kirchweih'; that's the Sunday after Mardini (?St. Martin?) When Kirchweih, Nokerweih and Katreinbaal were all over, then we began laying the tobacco leaves together, because it had to be taken away before Christmas.

The oven was heated early in the morning, the midday meal was put in the Kamin (chimney breast) and the animals were fed. After breakfast, we bundled the tobacco leaves until midday, and again after the meal until evening. Then we fed the animals again, had supper, and then carried on bundling leaves until 10 p.m. This took three or four weeks because every leaf had to be stretched out flat and (am Kopp vore han die Storze misse dreimol iwer Greitz ene ufm anre leie) (?the .... had to cross over three times, one on top of each other?). Once the tobacco had been bundled into four or six large bales between four poles, we breathed a sigh of relief, because it was only now that we would get paid for our whole year's work and effort. We received the money for the tobacco in one lump sum before Christmas. It was a tidy sum and we could buy quite a few things with it. But one unfortunate year, Bewi and her mother had a bad experience. They took their tobacco to Temeschwar eight days before Christmas. Because they'd had a particularly good year and had therefore got more money for their acre of tobacco, which they'd grown together, they excitedly went straight to the shops, bought material and all sorts of things for the whole family, and didn't even spare on sweets, which they usually did. When they'd finished shopping to their heart's content, they went to the station and waited for the train. There were a few people they knew there and, what with telling them about the good year they'd had growing tobacco and how happy they were, the time passed quickly.

When the time came to board the train, they did so, but they didn't see the two smart men who had been listening to them the whole time and who had followed them onto the train. Bewi and her mother grabbed the best seats by the window, facing each other, and watched the people outside who also wanted to get on the train. When the train driver gave the guard the signal to move off and the guard shouted, "All aboard! Close the doors!" the two men in black with starched collars and ties came and sat next to them. The women glanced quickly at the two smart menand then carried on looking out of the window. The train had barely passed the last houses when one of the two men got out a pack of cards and said "Red to win, black to lose!" People raised their heads and one by one went over to join the game. The cunning foxes let them win small amounts because they had their eye on Bewi and her mother. They had bragged too loudly at the station about how much money they had on them. Really! The fish had bitten and when it was on the line they let it dangle a bit by letting Bewi always win a small amount, and when the stakes were doubled to win back their lost money, they gambled again. This went on until Bewi had gambled not only all her own money, but her mother's money, too, as she had had all the money on her. When the tears began to roll and she leaned on her mother's shoulder, complaining that all their money was lost, that a whole year's work had been frittered away etc. etc., the two smart men stood up and left.

They disappeared so quickly that no guard could find them. The men had probably given them a couple of Lei (a few pennies) to let them make a getaway, because they definitely did not jump from the train. Playing 'Red to win' was illegal, but they always found gullible people who would be taken in. Bewi and her mother arrived home with no money; we can only imagine what their husbands said! At least they still had the material and the other necessities they had bought. But they had worked a whole year for nothing. They certainly never played 'Red to win' ever again, that's for sure! The devil never rests; he is always ready to trap you. A moment of madness can ruin a whole life.

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Elisabeth Meiszner (from Uihei and Kleinbetschkerek) - taken from the Donau Schwaben Kalender 1972

(translated by Diana Lambing)

 

 

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