DiasporaStories of resistance

A word that saved two lives

In 1943, the Nazi regime felt defeated and the influx of enemy troops began  to retreat from the front line. The invaders, feeling anger, whenever possible took captives with them, whose lives were turned into torture. And although it was not easy to escape from captivity, some did manage to do it.

Vasyl Hartsev, a Rom by origin, had a not very characteristic appearance, because of which he was repeatedly mistaken for a Slav. One of the features that betrayed his roots was his perfect knowledge of the Romani language. Speaking in his native language, he could not imagine that one day it would save two human lives.

Vasyl was born in 1918 in an ordinary Roma family, loved learning and had linguistic abilities. He quickly picked up languages, so in addition to his two native languages, he mastered German and French. He received a call to the army in the summer of 1941 at the age of 22. The family accompanied Vasyl to serve in the infantry, where the young man spent 4 long and difficult years. During the retreat of the German military, Vasyl Hartsev’s subdivision took part in the liberation of the current territory of Belarus.

In war, mistakes cost too much, one of the fatal ones was made by the command of the boy’s military formation. The wrong decision cost the servicemen their freedom, German officers captured the surviving soldiers, and among them was Vasyl and his fellow. Torture and hellish work were what awaited the captives. Enemy commanders exhausted the boys with hard tasks at sawmill. In order to live, they had to work day and night. During the war, the invaders learned a little Russian and easily understood what the captives were talking about. This gave them an even greater advantage. Vasyl was lucky; the Germans did not guess about his roots, they did not understand the Romani language, so it was decided to “Romanize“ his comrade a little.

Vasiliy Gartsev
Photo: from the personal archive of the Gartsev family.

One evening, Vasyl went outside at a good moment and when the opportunity arose, he shouted to his friend: “Prastam”, which in translation from Romani means “Let’s run”. They managed to leave the territory of sawmill, but had to run many kilometres to a more or less safe place. On the way, the boys ran into a settlement, the locals took them to the partisans, where they stayed for some time. After a rest, Vasyl Hartsev returned to service and fought already on the territory of Poland, fighting for Warsaw.

Victory awaited him, after the end of the war he returned home, married and raised three daughters. Even in his old age, the man said that the struggle was not easy; he had travelled to many countries at his age. He travelled more than one hundred kilometres, risking his life: he had to hide, sleep in hay bales, which the Germans occasionally punctured, and lost friends. The only thing that remained steadfast and was passed on to his descendants was his love for the Motherland and his native language, to which Vasyl owed his life. Even now, Vasyl’s daughters tell this story when they talk about the importance of the native language.


According to the memories of the hero’s daughter,

Nadiia Hartseva (Ponomarova)

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