Summer Bathing

Bathers in the Neviazhe river by Keidan. Probably late 19th-early 20th century.

By B. Cassel

From 1935 until his death in 1941, Boruch Chaim Cassel served as editor of The Keidaner, the monthly bulletin of the Keidaner Association of New York. Besides announcing meetings and recording the happy and sad events in the lives of the association’s members, the small publication often carried memoirs and news about the immigrants’ old home town in Lithuania, usually in Yiddish. In his last years, B. Cassel used this space for several short pieces about his youth in Keidan. This one was published in August and September, 1938.

B. Cassel as a young man in Riga.

There is no better time than youth. Especially in summer, on a Friday afternoon, when school is out and the entire world is busy bathing.

At least it seems like everyone is bathing. Small children are dipping themselves in the Smilga. Older ones, who know how to swim a little, bathe at Kelerke’s fields, where the Smilga drops into the Neviazhe, after it flows past the communal outhouse. Women and girls in long shirts bathe near the islet, where the deepest spot is only up to the knees.

But how could this compare with bathing in the deep Skongale? That is where the real swimmers went. At least, that’s where you went to learn how.

Once you had learned a bit about swimming in depths over your head, the greatest ambition was to swim across the whole river, to “Across-the-water.” When you felt ready to give it a try, you would set off, accompanied by two good swimmers at your sides. And when you reached the other bank, it was as if you had made a trip around the world, or come through the farthest wilderness.

On shore you’d stretch out on the sand, enjoying your triumph, taking a well-earned rest, to gather enough strength to swim back. Your chest would swell a little with pride. You’d really think yourself a hero for doing such a thing, swimming across the deep Skongale. However, you’d really rather be back on the other side. So, somewhat nervously, you’d head back with your two companions, who coaxed the new swimmer on with praises, until you reached the spot where at last you could stand on your own feet, the happiest person in the world.

You had reached the pinnacle of achievement – swimming across the deep Skongale.

Then you began to master a series of other skills, such as swimming under water, swimming on your back, scanning the bottom, touching the bottom, swimming standing up, and other tricks. But your greatest goal as a swimmer was to know how to stretch out on your back and lie in the water motionless, not moving hands or feet – what we called “swimming like a board.” The only one in Keidan who could do that, however, was the Christian doctor, Yevtekhovsky.

Except for “swimming like a board,” we knew how to do all the water tricks. Peyske Shmaiyes wanted to figure out how many man-lengths deep it was in mid-river, so we joined several daring swimmers together and measured the distance to the bottom, each one standing on the others’ shoulders. Peyske would always be the first to go under, and with three or four boys, each standing on the other, would touch the bottom.

Among our fellow swimmers was Black Motke. His parents leased a tavern somewhere on the Abele or in Pelédnagiai, and Motke went to school in Keidan. During the week he stayed with his relatives in Keidan, but on Friday afternoon he would either ride home with a peasant he knew, or hike the several kilometers from Keidan on foot.

On hot summer days after school, Motke would go with our whole gang of swimmers to dip in the deep Skongale, and would spend the whole week that way with the fellows. But on Fridays his grief was unbearable: All the swimmers would run off to the Skongale to bathe, while he would often trudge off in the heat, across the Neviazhe bridge to the Kovno Road, sweating toward home.

So one especially hot Friday, when his friends were heading to the Skongale to bathe, and poor Motke couldn’t bear to tear himself away from the gang, it occurred to one of us that Motke could actually save himself some time by coming along with us. By swimming across the river, he would avoid a considerable portion of his walk home, because there, on the other side of the river, he’d be not far from the cemetery and much closer to his house.

As for his clothes, such as they were, which consisted of a shirt, a pair of pants, a blouse, undershirt and cap (in summer we didn’t wear boots – we went barefoot), they could be divided into little packets among several fellows, who could swim upright, carrying the packets on their heads. That way his things would be light enough to carry over across the river.

No long discussion was necessary to agree on the plan, and Motke was elated to be able to go with the fellows to bathe in the deep Skongale.

There was no lack of volunteers to carry Motke’s things across. His entire wardrobe was grabbed up, and each carrier had a helper to swim alongside, in case he got tired from swimming upright.The plan succeeded: The things were carried across dry. No more than a sleeve of the blouse got wet. And Motke, after spending some time with the fellows in the water off the riverbank, was headed homeward for Shabbos, very glad for the shortcut that cut a few kilometers from his trip.

From that Friday on, Motke would decline to ride home in the goy’s wagon, preferring to go swimming with the fellows. For us it became a whole new game, carrying Motke’s things across the water.

The tavern that Motke’s parents kept was also a village store, and very often Motke had to get items in Keidan that were needed in the store. Normally he would send them with the goy who drove from the town to the village. But often he would take them along with him when he went home on Friday.

On the hottest Friday in Tamuz [June-July], when God had “brought up the sun from her butter barrel,” it happened that Motke needed to bring home a sack of coarse salt, which was needed in the store.

At first Motke didn’t want to risk taking the salt across the water, but after we swimmers assured him we could bring it over as dry as all the other things we took each Friday, he let himself be persuaded. And no wonder. The day was very hot; he wanted badly to swim; he would save a considerable distance by going through Skongale, and we experienced swimmers had till then never gotten his things wet as we carried them across the water.

The riverbank was packed with bathers. Clothing was scattered all around near the groves, on the grass and on the sand. People big and small were there, all dressed in their birthday suits: Little folks chattered near the bank. Swimmers showed off their tricks in the water. Older people dried out in the sun after bathing and discussed worldly matters, sitting in groups according to their station.

Our whole gang of swimmers was there. After we had taken several good dips, and played pranks on the bank, in the sand and in the groves, we got down to the job of carrying across Motke’s things, with the sack of salt.

The group taking over the sack of salt was led by Peyske Shmaiyes. He chose the best swimmers to anchor themselves, so to speak, across the width of the river. Each carrier of the sack had only to swim a few feet, and give the salt to the next one anchored waiting for the salt, and he would give it to the next, and so on to the other side of the river.

I was the second to take the sack from Peyske, who swam a good distance and gave me the salt totally dry. As I took the sack, which weighed around ten pounds, I figured I would swim a longer distance than Peyske; but after swimming just a few feet upright, with both hands holding the sack on my head, I felt it becoming a heavier burden minute by minute, and I couldn’t do more than reach the next fellow, to whom I passed the sack in same dry condition as I had received it.

Urke Rive Goldes was the one I passed the salt to. He was a rugged boy, built like a little barrel. Probably from waiting and treading water in the middle of the river he was already a little tired, and as he swam several feet with the sack on his head, he was already breathing hard and exhaustedly calling out to the next stationed swimmer. As he passed on the sack to the next fellow, a tired Urke wetted a corner of the sack.

Reuvke Itzik Reuven’s was a good swimmer, but as he placed the wetted sack upon his head, suddenly felt a salty stream of water leaking in his eyes, down over his face and into his mouth. Without making a fuss, he simply took the wet salt sack from his head and pulled it along in the water.

When it reached the next swimmer the bag was soaked, and by the time it reached the bank on the other side of the river, almost the entire sackful of salt had dissolved in the water.

What kind of punishment Motke caught at home he never exactly told us, because he was by nature a reticent person. But after that he gave up swimming the deep Skongale on his Friday trips home.

Translated by A. Cassel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *