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"Der Baschtan [Melon Field]"

Knauer, Karl. “Der Baschtan [Melon Field]." Bessarabischer Heimatkalender, 1955, 88-89.

This translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, Colorado


A "Splendid Slice"

Could there be any kind of fruit or vegetable in Germany that can come even close to equaling the goodness of the water melon (”arbuse” [a work adapted from Russian])? I personally am not familiar with any. People in southeastern Europe, in the Balkans and in the Orient, who live more simply in nutritional terms than the German people, would find it difficult to imagine life without watermelons. A plain piece of bread and a melon were enough to still both hunger and thirst, and no one ever tired of this fruit. Rich in sugar as it is, it provides even the poorest household with a very inexpensive syrup and, pickled for the winter, it is, well, just the finest side dish there is. The “arbuse” is for the Orientals what the potato is for the Germans.

Needing little moisture, the “arbuse” makes a lot of demands on the sun and the soil. Richly fertilized soil encourages rotting of the roots and the fruit itself. Therefore, sandy black soil is its genuine element to thrive in. Researchers of oriental languages might give us some insight into the origin of the term "baschtan," our own understanding is that the word "baschtan" is the place where [water] melons and cantaloupes grow. The “arbuse” has been around for many centuries. Consider that in 4 Moses 1, 5 we read that the hungry Jewish people were longing for the onions and melons of Egypt. In the desert there is likely no other fruit that can take the place of the water melon. It actually contains a remarkable percentage of water, which protects the wayfarer from dying of thirst.

We now come to life with the “baschtan” in a German village, where even the poorest of families was not without two or three acres of “baschtan”. Every spring in Sarata, for example, the community set aside 20 to 30 “hectares” [ about 50 to 75 acres] of the community grazing land for use as a “baschtan”. Depending on the number of people, each family was assigned a small plot three to six “ar” [1 ar is ca.1.2 square yard] in size. It was restricted to planting “arbuse”, other melons, cucumbers and pumpkins for cooking. With large, single-share plows and very fine harrow, the soil was worked down literally into "flour." Then the land was divided into single plots, these were distributed to the individual participants by drawing lots, and they were planted immediately. According to an old custom, the “baschtan” had to be planted by the 100th day of the year, i.e., April 10. Boundaries between plots were marked by grooves in the soil, and so-called "broom rice" was planted in them, which would later form a natural fence. Four or fives weeks later the “baschtan “would be hoed for the first time, and three weeks later for a second time. Once the plants began the creeping climbing process, they could not be disturbed. With joyous anticipation the fathers would observe the growth in the “baschtan”, especially when the light green, curly leaves of the “arbusen” [a German plural of the Russian word] covered the ground.

The shell of the water melon, with its beautifully variegated exterior must be of special interest to botanists. From the darkest green to the most delicate light pink, and with symmetrically stretching, sometimes zig-zagging stripes, they lay there on the ground, one right next to the other. Among the dozens of melon sorts, each had its unique form and even its own seed color - in short, it was a miracle plant amidst the monotony of the steppes.

Around the beginning of July, the onset of the hottest part of the year, the time had come to harvest the first “arbusen”. It was a very joyous occasion when the first ripe “arbuse” landed on the table, blood-red and citrus-yellow as it was split by the knife and provided its pleasant refreshment. It is hard to believe that a “baschtan” of three to five ”ar” could actually yield 80 to 100 hundred-weights of these fine-tasting fruits. Although a “baschtan” guard would be employed, it was less for prevention theft than for chasing away certain enemies of the fruit, particularly the crows.

What a joy it was for us children when, on a Saturday afternoon or Sunday forenoon, father readied the long wagon so that we could load it up out at the garden. Loaded down heavily and swaying under the large load, the wagon then proceeded step by step toward the house. People and animals refreshed themselves with the melons. In the oppressive heat, the dust of the steppes, and with our poor-quality drinking water, this was a true refreshment for the residents of the steppes.

Water melons were so inexpensive that even the poorest could afford them. Moreover, they were such pure a food that even the very ill could eat them without problems. Medical body cleansing was not needed, either, because the “arbuse” did this job the best. So when in the mornings, mothers aired out the straw mattresses and other bedding, it was not always due to lack of fresh air in the house -- the “arbusen” had done their job among the children during the night.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

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