New York camp’s anniversary brings back memories

The Latvian camp in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York celebrates it golden anniversary this year. What horrid memories I recall of my time there.

I was reminded of the camp when an e-mail arrived from Marģers Pinnis, who compiles the excellent online calendar of New York area Latvian events. The camp is formally known as the Latvian Lutheran Camp, but everyone just refers to it as Katskiļi  (The Catskills).

Perhaps it was 1968, after I had just finished the fifth grade, when my parents first hauled me and my belongings to the children’s summer camp. I dreaded the idea, just like many other kids dread the idea of being sent off to camp. For me it was double dread, because I knew I wouldn’t know anyone at the camp. Most of the kids were from New York City. We lived 90 miles north of the city in a small university town. My parents assured me that I would know at least one person—my godfather’s daughter, who was a year older than me and a veteran campgoer. They forgot one detail. She was a girl, and I was at the age when boys just didn’t mix with girls.

Sure enough, I didn’t know anyone. I was assigned to the boys’ barracks and took a lower bunk in a room full of strangers. I yearned for my room back home.

The snippets of memories that come back to me include plenty of inconvenience and trauma. Morning calisthenics were obligatory—before breakfast. I thought camp was about having fun! Then we marched to breakfast as a group, chanting “kreisā, kreisā, kreisā labā kreisā” (left, left, left right left).

Breakfast usually wasn’t too bad. I came to enjoy oatmeal covered with sugar and cinnamon. But lunch or dinner was a different story. It seemed that once a week we were forced to down one of the worst concoctions to ever come out of a Latvian kitchen—piena zupa ar klimpām un rozīnēm. Ugh. Milk soup with dumplings and raisins. Just to write this brings me shudders.

The cafeteria also was where young Latvian boys underwent one of their rites of passage. Seeking to emulate the camp counselors, we learned to drink—and in some cases even like—buttermilk. A few cautious sips one day might lead to a boy chugging a whole glass on a dare the next day.

Dares got you in trouble, even if it was just a quiet dare to yourself. I almost drowned undergoing another rite of passage. Swimming options included the lakeshore near the ezermāja. The water there was rumored to be full of leeches waiting to suck the blood of young Latvian children. On the other side of the lake was a dock where kids could dive into the deep water. I wasn’t about to tell anyone that I had never been in water over my head and had no idea what “treading” meant, so when my turn came to jump in, I went for it. As the blue sky above me disappeared in a swirl of lake water, I must have thought to myself that in the future—if there was to be one—I should be a bit more cautious. OK, so I didn’t drown. And I don’t remember how many more times that day I jumped into the deep.

Life in the barracks was rough. Short-sheeting was just the start. I am convinced a particular boy, a mean-spirited thug from New York City, had it in for me. Among his weapons was a towel with a knot tied on the end. A slap from that hurt like hell. He also stole, so you learned quickly to keep your trunk locked at all times, but especially after a “care package” arrived from home. The hard life in the barracks was compounded by the knowledge that we were untermenschen. The older boys, the cool boys, lived not in barracks but in one of the two large tents nearby. We realized that if we stuck it out and came back to camp every summer, eventually we’d graduate to the living quarters of the privileged.

As many parents know, kids usually end up liking camp. It was no different for me. The first few days of shock therapy led to friendships, good times and even a few life lessons. I learned to like buttermilk, I learned to swim in deep water, I had great fun in the weekly šķēršļu gājiens (round game), and I even got to dance with girls!

I went back to the Catskills the next summer, but the following year was sent even farther north to Canada’s Camp Sidrabene (not to be confused with its arch-enemy Camp Saulaine, against which we battled on the athletics field). I returned to the Catskills for one more year, this time having graduated to the Tents of the Cool Boys.

Years later, we sent our daughter to Gaŗezers in Michigan for summer camp for the first time, where she underwent similar rites of passage but came to love the place.

However, I believe she mercifully was spared piena zupa ar klimpām un rozīnēm.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

14 thoughts on “New York camp’s anniversary brings back memories

  1. I always had my doubts about latvian camp when i was about 6 or 7. All of my other friends got to sit in their homes and eat cereal and watch tv all day, i never understood why i was being sent off to camp. But as i grew up i realized that i was the luckiest kid alive, because i got to go to camp. Not just camp, but Latvian camp. The friendships and memories i’ve made there are irriplaceable. I continue to work there becuase i never want to forget the amazing time i’ve had there. I agree with Tija, nometne is a place i consider my second home. I feel i really belong there, and in the end isn’t that what being latvian is about? feeling like you belong somewhere? With all the relocating latvians as a culture have gone through, i feel truly blessed to have someplace i love and feel such a huge part of. Though everyone has some sort of horror story about nometne, that is not what it is about. Its about friends and memories, and an unexplainable bond. HAPPY 50th KATSKIL.. i know ill see you all labor day!

  2. As an avid Katskili nometne go-er…it was great to hear the “back in the day” story about nometne…but my how things have changed! I have just recently celebrated my 18th year at nometne and know no better place on earth! Nometne has become my home away from home and would never trade my memories or friendships for anything. I think spending my summers up at nomente has made me the person I am today – I learned a lot about life, love, and friendship, along with the understanding of what it means to be Latvian. The love of the Latvian heritage is still alive at nometne and continues to grow. Please join us on Sept. 2nd-4th to celebrate nometne’s 50th anniversary!

  3. Come one come all, nakiet visi, to the biggest bash ever hosted in Katskilu Nometne, the 50 Year Anniversay Party!! This one is going to be a doozy, indeed, featuring all your favorite friends, counselors, and respected teachers from our storied past. Everyone and anyone who has spent any time within this wonderful mountain sanctuary for Latvian-American culture and community will be there, fo-sho. This is a unique opportunity for everyone to reminisce, have a ridiculously wonderful time and perhaps get back in the Latvian-American lifestyle saddle. Everyone is welcome!!! Onkulis Grills wants you!!!

    It’s all going down Labor Day Weekend, from Saturday Sept. 2nd through Monday Sept. 4th. There’s going to be awesome Latvian food, an off the hook bi-lingual talent show (give me a holler if you want to perform a sketch or a song), a skerslu gajiens, a massive ugunskurs, the unique feeling of hundreds of Latvian-Americans singing their dearest songs in unison, and of course an elegant dance not to be missed. It costs just $85, (imagine how much you would pay for just the food at a European restaurant), and there is no logical reason at all why you should not be there!! ;)

    For me, the 50th Anniversary of Nometne is a very personal event close to my heart, considering that I spent the vast majority of my life in Nometne. Like metal to a magnet, I am perpetually drawn back to that place, to all of the awesome people assciated with it, to all of the memories. And now I urge you all to find that same feeling, to hold onto it, to let it grow, to think of the time you spent in Katskili with some of the best friends you’ll ever meet in your life, to get here by plane, train, canal, automobile, segway human transporter, helicopter, piggy-back ride, or any means conceivable, to be here for this once-in-a-lifetime celebration. To be honest, I want you all to be here as much for my sake as for yours, but, to use some crazy technological terminology, I think this is going to be one hell of an autocatalytic, bottom-up, emergent event. Together we will make 50 Gada Jubileja a truly memorable three-day weekend!

    I can’t wait to see you all.

    Viva Nometne!!!
    Your Camp Friend,
    -Alvis Brigis

  4. I myself entered my first year at nometne not knowing a single soul around me. At first it was ridiculously problematic trying to take in the rituals of the camp. Everything seemed so foreign and unfamiliar, scary even, but with time I grew to love and welcome the deep contrasts that nometne held with everyday American life. I too have formed the strongest and most genuine friendships with other campgoers. These are the people that I have known the longest, and no matter how far the distance between us, I am convinced that nothing will ever break these ties. This camp in the Catskills is more than just a place, it is a home where generation upon generation may reconnect, embrace their culture, and in doing so, embrace themselves. I am proud to have such a place in my life and am convinced that there will be several milestones to follow.

  5. Latvian –American behavior is quite unique. As an old Brooklynite from the 60’s my memories are fond ones. The 1st romances, frog hunting, nakstsazaidu, “Old Man Grill” horror stories, raiding the girls barracks during the wee hours, ekskursijas, Kalna kapsanas (escaping to the real world-drinking Coke and listening to the rolling stones), learning how to smoke cigarettes with five guys behind the big fallen trees, Oh yeah- Those neurotic counselors who had torture rituals for their favorite campers!
    Nomente was for young Latvian kids with DP Latvian parents. The kids were all American-Latvians, without any European tendencies.
    The Latvian culture that my children learned through the Katskilu notmetne experience has been a positive life enrichment. They may not know how to speak the Latvian language, but it doesn’t make them any less proud of their heritage. If you read this retort to the article my daughter is the Program Director of the Camp for the Non- speaking Latvians Future!

    The 50th anniversary is for the people who want to remember the good times.

  6. As I do agree with the ending of this story (the part about making lasting friendships and learning life lessons), I don’t agree with the beginning. The camp in the Catskills is my favorite place in the world. I consider it my second home. My experiences there were nothing but positive and they continue to be. I start as a campgoer at the age of 6 only know 1 other person who was a year older than I was. Because of the age difference, we weren’t put in the same cabin but I ended up my 4 best friends in the world. We’re still very close and I believe we always will be. I love that place so much that I return almost every summer now as a counselor. My opinion is that along with the beutiful mountain scenery and the activities that are well known to all campers, the camp in the Catskills is one of the greatest Latvian retreats. I encourage anyone that has any ties to that place to try and make it up there for the anniversary celebration or some other time.

  7. It is funny reading this story now-a-days. Many people who experienced this “Katskili” now send their children. But it is different now. Children take bottled water, fans, what have you. The virtuve has changed as well, some chefs choosing to serve chicken nuggets. So I guess this article is a testiment to how times have changed and what we remember growing up. Just like parents and grandparents have their childhood stories showing how hard life was, I guess I can truly say, ” I remember the day when we had to…..” It is just that familiar shared experience which keeps us “Latvians” together, whether it be during nometne or valodas periods. Times have changed but our love for nometne remains strong! Here’s to a Great 50th!

  8. What a shame that Andris has such “horrid” memories of Nometne in the Catskills. Nevertheless he survived “pienu zupa”( which was only served every other Sunday night) and all of the other atrocities that were thrust upon him during Nometne. I was also served the same zupa but since I indulged in my care package from home that arrived on Saturday…………..I usually skipped the zupa and had a great lesson in problem solving at the same time. Nometne forced a lot of us to compromise our way of life for a few short weeks during the summer. Learning to live, eat , sleep and get along with 15-20 other roommates was indeed a life experience. I personally treasure and draw upon my experiences now that I am an adult and a parent. There is no place on this earth like the learning, growing and humbleness that we experience in Nometne. The Latvian Lutheran Church Camp in the Catskill Mountains has enriched my life and hopefully the lives of the “nometnieki” that I have worked with over the past years! Daudz Baltu Dieninu Katskilu Nometne………’s to Fifty more!!

  9. I started there when I was 4 yrs old, and my dad was the boys’ counselor (the only reason I was allowed to attend so young). The boys all lived in the ‘ezermaja’ and the girls all lived in ‘Rota’ before it became the Lat/Am veterans home. The only other original building was the ‘vartu maja’. Over the years volunteers pitched in to build the ‘edamzale’, the cabins, and then the other guest houses & meeting hall. The boys always played “klimpinas” and I could never figure out the rules to that game.

  10. Katskilu nometne has served its purpose for everyone, as it did for Andris. Purpose being the key word here. In nometne, as a counselor I felt like we could all work together regardless of age. Creativity, individual strengths was what made nometne work (especially if you had a good idea for skerlsu gajiens!) My theory about nometne is that it seems as though it was a place for the latvian immigrants to come together and keep up the culture, in hopes of someday returning to Latvija. Today, that hope has changed. And to some extent, I think there is confusion about the sole purpose or hope for the camp. I am confused about it. My hope is that the 50th anniversary rekindles interest, ideas, recruits people to keep this place going. Only if you work at nometne nowadays do you really know what is going on. Nometne took alot of work to get started, and it needs alot of work to keep going. It won’t just be there every summer if we don’t pull up our sleeves and get to work. There is a group of people who do work hard and strive to keep nometne purposeful, and to them I say thank you.

  11. Very nice and truethful story.. Camping for the child is a very difficult environment to adjust to, especcialy for those who had never left their homes for the time longer than sleep-over night at the friend’s hause. I enjoyed reading this article. It brought back my own memories about the time spent in Kindergarden summer residence in Jurmala in late 1950s, where I was staying all three summer month without going home . Our parents had one visit day a week. I know that feeling – mixed on happiness of being at the beech and a sadness being avay from home. But, there is a lot of positive in those experiences – in a long term, it makes children less selfish, more confident, and stronger physicly and mantaly. All depends on adults who are working with children.
    Those were my little thoughts reading this article
    Thank you!
    August 29 ,2006, Michigan, USA

  12. I would never in a million years trade my time and experience in camp for anything. This truly priceless part of my past has helped me become the person that I am; no, not a buttermilk drinking drunk. The simplicity of nometne and all that it entailed is something that seems to be a lost entity in the lives of so many kids (seeing this 1st hand as a high school teacher). Vivid and favorite memories include the days of the CLP (crazy Latvian Punks), wearing our flannel shirts with only the top button fixed, sneaking cigs or div and secretly listenting to American music (like Cypress Hill and Steve Miller; not that those two have anything in common). Of course there was all of the cultural education that came along with the summer as well. To all who I have not heard from for a lifetime, I thank you and miss the good old days. Sorry that I could not be there for the big party.

  13. I just wanted to say “Paldies!” – thank you, to Andris for his kind words about me and the NYLatvian.Org calendar at the beginning of his article. The anniversary celebration was fantastic! Saw some people I had not met in 10 – 20 even 30+ years. Many thanks to all the organizers! Hope all “Nometne” alumni join the Friends of Nometne Society now being formed. Regards, Margers in Sleepy Hollow, NY

  14. i happened to enjoy the piena zupa (though i’d forgotten about it until reading this brief memoir of yours)… you forgot to mention my favorite thing about nometne – after-dinner snacking / supper, which usually consisted of a potato pancake or two smeared with a little bit of jam. joy of joys!

Leave a Reply

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