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.

Foreword

The love for my homeland has been within me, particularly emphasized since my earliest childhood. I have an unforgettable and painful memory when, at the age of fourteen (1931), I had to move from Novi Bečej to Zrenjanin (then Veliki Bečkerek) for my education. There, I lived with my sister and three other students, slightly older than me.

The first day of separation from home, from Novi Bečej, and all that was dear, somehow passed peacefully. However, when I lay down in the evening, much later than I did in my parental home, the night stretched on and became endless. I believe I had never experienced a longer night until then, or since. I tossed and turned in bed, got up several times to drink water, but sleep eluded me. Thoughts of the farm, where I grew up with my parents, of the Tisa River, of Gradište, of the places where I spent the most beautiful and unforgettable days of my youth, lingered until morning. I didn't close my eyes until dawn.

Town on the Tisza River

Town on the Tisza River

The vast Banat plain sprawls like a sea, stretching from the Danube, Tisza, and Moris rivers to the Carpathian Mountains in Romania. In this expanse of fields and meadows, scattered villages and towns dot the landscape, resembling each other much like the Banat fields near Novi Becej, similar to those near Kikinda, Pancevo, Timisoara, or anywhere else in Banat.

The seemingly monotonous landscape might be thought dull by those unfamiliar with living on the plains. However, it is not so. The view and the entire human being find respite in the breadth that extends on all sides, filling one with a sense of freedom.

The Tisza River has always been a source of pride for the residents of Novi Bečej and Vranjevo

The Tisza River has always been a source of pride for the residents of Novi Bečej and Vranjevo

The people of Novi Bečej took pride in their town not for its appearance or the strength of its economy but for its exceptional location. The Tisza flows right through the center, a feature not common in many towns situated near such a large river. The wooded banks with a beautiful promenade made this part particularly attractive and charming, giving the impression of a seaside town, especially in the evening when the lights along the promenade and the summer hall of the "Vojvodina" hotel lit up, along with the numerous lights on the barges waiting for loading or being filled to be towed to their destinations.

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?

Gradište Forest - Gem of Novi Bečej

It might sound a bit unusual, but it was true that no resident of Novi Bečej, when wanting to describe the beauty and appearance of their town, would start without mentioning the Tisa River and Gradište. Gradište was a grove of majestic poplars and oaks. Its name likely originated from the ruins of the old fortress, most of which lie in the Tisa River, with only a small part emerging from the water when it recedes.

The forest was located right next to the Tisa, between the riverbed and the levee that protected Novi Bečej from floods. It stretched from the ferry, today's exit to the Tisa from Svetozar Miletić Street, to the ruins of the old fortress, spanning a length of one kilometer and a width of about 200-250 meters. The part closer to the center of Novi Bečej was mostly covered with poplars, while the section closer to the fortress ruins was under the canopy of oaks.

Dudara - Part of Our Childhood

On the right side of the road leading from Kumane to Novi Becej, from Radnicka Street all the way to house number 41 on Lole Ribara Street, and about fifty meters from this street towards the railway track, there was a meadow planted with mulberry trees. This is how it got its name - Dudara.

Dudara was a charming meadow in this part of the town. In spring, when the grass turned green and the tree branches filled with leaves, Dudara became a gathering place for children and youth. Laughter and shouts from the children's games echoed in the air. Besides the joy and happiness of playing outdoors in Dudara, children took special pride in herding flocks of goslings to graze. They enjoyed watching the goslings nibbling on the lush green grass and laughed when a gosling struggled to pull a piece of grass, flipping over onto its back, only to struggle to get back on its feet. Alongside the children, the guardians of the goslings were geese who vigilantly ensured that no intruder from another flock would sneak in.

Peripheral Areas and Approaches to the Town

The periphery is, in the truest sense of the word, a periphery, as I, albeit unintentionally, treated it as such. Later, I remembered that it might be of interest for the younger generations to learn how the parts of Novi Bečej and Vranjevo looked in the past.

The approach to Novi Bečej from the direction of Kumanovo was a straight line without turning left. At that time, there were no canals or bridges that would require the winding road we have today in that part of the route. The road was a dirt road, impassable almost year-round due to mud from autumn to spring. On the right side, at the entrance to the town, there were three separate streets branching off from the road, extending towards the railway tracks. These streets were built somewhere in the 1920s, on the site where the Novi Bečej fair used to be held, so despite having their own names, these streets were collectively called Vašarište. Until recently, there was a building called the "Ticket Office" where passports were issued, space for the fair was rented, and other activities related to the fair were conducted. This building was the second one from the corner on the right side of Radnička Street, as seen from the Kumanovo road.

Islands of Green
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Islands of Green

Villages and towns in the Vojvodina plain appear as green islands amidst the sea of cultivated fields. The desire to utilize every inch of fertile Banat land for the production of crops has deprived the fields of even the most essential trees. Vast expanses, especially in the central and northern Banat, lack any semblance of trees. Only farms were surrounded by the greenery of acacia or mulberry trees. Occasionally, a tree would grow along the road connecting villages and towns. Everything else was either cultivated land or pastures for the village cows and other livestock. Trees were so rare that a farmer, amidst the scorching summer heat and the most arduous tasks like harvesting, had no opportunity to rest in the shade of a tree for miles in any direction.

In the eve of the economic crisis
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In the eve of the economic crisis

Novi Becej was a county seat. This county also included the villages of Vranjevo, Beodra, Dragutinovo (Beodra and Dragutinovo now form Novo Milosevo), Kumane, Melenci, Torda, and Taras. With an area of 812 km2 and a population of 48,449, the county ranked among the ten largest out of the total of 38 counties in the Danube Banovina. Initially, the Danube Banovina included not only the present-day Vojvodina but also the Croatian part of Srem and Baranja.

The villages belonging to the Novi Becej county were not only administratively connected but were primarily economically dependent on Novi Becej. Without such an economic hinterland, the vitality of Novi Becej at that time would be unimaginable.

Agriculture
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Agriculture

As is rare in most Vojvodina villages, there was a significant difference in the wealth of farmers in Novi Bečej. A large portion of the land was owned by a few large landowners and 250-300 wealthy Serbs, and around twenty wealthy Hungarians. The remaining agricultural population, for the most part, either had no land or had 3-4 acres.

Through the agrarian reform after World War I, land was taken away from the large landowners Ivanović, Rohonci, and Šojmoš and distributed to Serbian peasants. The landowners were left with 500 acres of arable land and an unlimited area of pastures and economic buildings.

Planting, Harvesting and Threshing
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Planting, Harvesting and Threshing

The sowing of wheat was largely done manually, to a significant extent. It was common to see a farmer in the field carrying an untied sack or bag of about ten kilograms of wheat. The sack was secured and slung around the neck and under the left or right armpit (depending on whether the person was right or left-handed). Using their hand, the farmer would scoop up the wheat and, taking a step at a time, evenly swing their arm to scatter the wheat across the plowed field. After sowing, a harrow was used to cover the seeds. The harrow was typically made of tied twigs, and in wealthier households, it could be made of steel wire with parts resembling blunt nails. Usually, two horses or oxen pulled the harrow. Following the harrowing, the horses were harnessed to a roller to press the soil, facilitating the normal germination of wheat.

Deep Roots of Cultural Traditions
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Deep Roots of Cultural Traditions

Cultural and entertainment life mostly unfolded in taverns. Nearly all taverns had halls where dances and various events were held on Sundays and holidays. Celebrations took place from November, when agricultural work ceased, until the end of February - almost every week. Organizers made sure that multiple events did not occur simultaneously due to attendance. An exception was made for major religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter, as well as New Year's, when everyone wanted to provide suitable entertainment for their members or regular dance attendees.

Kovačev Joca – Bača

A farmer from Vranjevo, the son of wealthy parents. He inherited a large estate, but his lifestyle did not contribute to the enlargement or preservation of the inheritance. I remember him as of medium height, already in his years, and in his youth, he must have been a handsome man. He was always on the move, cheerful, and ready for a joke.

He enjoyed company, and in Novi Bečej and Vranjevo, the easiest place to find it was in the tavern. Sitting in the tavern cost him, as being in the company always resulted in spending more than one initially thought. He especially had to do this while the inherited estate was still present, for the sake of reputation. He loved singing, particularly stories. He had a knack for being a attentive and patient listener to others' stories and jokes but was an indefatigable storyteller himself.

Short Historical Overview of Vranjevo's Development
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Short Historical Overview of Vranjevo's Development

In the northeastern part of the current territory of the village of Vranjevo, above Kerekto, a branch of the Tisa River meandered towards the south, flowing into the main course of the Tisa in front of the large warehouse, likely where the remains of the "Venecija" marsh are today. This branch used to be navigable and is now referred to as Mali Begej. On the left side of Mali Begej, there was a wasteland called Vran, now known as Vranjak. This area had settlements dating back to the Bronze Age, and during the Ottoman period, Serbian shepherds inhabited the region. In 1771, during the Požarevac Peace, Vranjevo had thirteen households.

Short historical overview of the development of Novi Bečej
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Short historical overview of the development of Novi Bečej

It is not precisely known when and how Novi Bečej acquired its name, or who founded it and when. One thing is certain – Bečej, with its fortress, held a significant place on the list of those influencing state politics in the sequence of historical events, sometimes even on a broader territory.

After the decline of the settlement that existed during the Roman era at the location of today's Novi Bečej, little is heard about it, as is the case with all other settlements in Banat. However, during the reign of King Stephen I (997 - 1038), Bečej appears as an inhabited place and soon is mentioned as a village.

Laza Lalić - Džebrak

was a kind of bohemian who spent all his free time in the tavern, but didn't always waste it on worthless stories and jokes. He was very strong, tall, and overweight, weighing around 140 kilograms. Despite being strict, he rarely abused his power.

Novi Bečej Market
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Novi Bečej Market

Markets were held on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays, just as they are today, but today's market is quite different from the one we remember from the past. Market days brought a special liveliness not only to the market itself but also to the shops and streets. The streets buzzed with people and crowds, as well as with horse-drawn vehicles. These days were significantly different from others, especially Wednesdays and Fridays. Even before dawn, carts and pedestrians from surrounding villages arrived, and the railway experienced increased traffic on those days, as many used its services to reach Novi Bečej and its market.

Novobečej and Vranjevo Jokers

Every place, including Novi Bečej and Vranjevo, had individuals whose actions and behavior drew attention to themselves. Only those who were altruistic, who often subjected their own personalities to ridicule just to make others laugh and cheer them up, will be mentioned. Because of this, their behavior often deviated from the norms that prevailed in the environments they came from and lived in. This influenced the judgments about them not always being favorable, although everyone knew they were kind-hearted individuals who loved people, who tried to entertain and amuse others with their actions, jokes, and inventions. As a rule, they were even victims of their excessive love for society.

Petar Sekulić

Petar Sekulić was a merchant of manufactured goods, as I have already described him. In his dealings with assistants, he infused humor and jokes, but above all, he prioritized hard work and a friendly approach to customers. Perhaps that friendliness was often superficial, but no customer dared to leave the store dissatisfied. Regardless of whether they would later realize at home that they were deceived, paid a high price, or received less than what they paid for, they had to leave the store feeling calm and satisfied. Any scenes a customer might create in the store would result in a loss of business, as other customers would leave the store just to avoid witnessing arguments.

Petar Trbić – Štrba

Of smaller stature, as we would say in our jargon, "dežmekast" (compact), but not overweight. His hair had long abandoned him, so even as a relatively young man, he had a forehead with a few sparse strands. Probably due to prolonged standing as a shop assistant, he had flat feet, a condition he didn't pay enough attention to in time, leading to deformities that caused him to limp while dragging one leg, especially in the last years of his life.