DiasporaStories of resistance

The last overcoat

The events took place in 1941 in the Roma collective farm of Loli Chergin. The Nazi regime was increasingly advancing on the territory of Eastern Europe, starting bloody battles one after another. At the same time, the authorities of the defending countries were gathering an army of fighters of different nationalities, ages, and statuses.

The Roma family of the Khliebnikovs received news about the conscription of their eldest son into the ranks of the military. Against the background of the war, the news shook the whole family, but the hope for the best encouraged support. The family had a good income, the father of the family, Mykhailo, was a clever man, and that’s why he was elected the head of the collective farm. All this affected the children’s childhood, so at the age of 22, the eldest son Pavlo had a good character and was an educated man. First, the boy went to study at a tank school, where he studied for six months, during which he acquired the skills of handling weapons and mastered the “iron horses” of war. In September 1943, the boy and his fellows went to the battlefield, the time coincided with the offensive of the Nazi army, and Pavlo’s native village was in the front-line zone. The troops were moving along the road laid near the Khliebnikovs’ house. Of course, the boy could not pass by and, despite the rules, left the convoy to say goodbye to his relatives. Inspired, in a long army overcoat, the young man flew into his parents’ house. Understanding the tough situation, he left some of his food for the family, kissed his father and mother, and took his two younger brothers in his arms, which he had often took care of before. All went out into the wide village street together, the boy said goodbye to his family and joined the column, and his parents stood in the open sky for a long time, until the army disappeared over the horizon.

Fierce battles were accompanied by victory, but the consequences of the struggle depressed young Pavlo. He shared his experiences with his loved ones, telling about his pain in letters. The deaths of civilians, destroyed houses, burnt neighbourhoods are a small part of the reality in which they had to exist. Despite the difficulties, the young man saw a victory over the enemy regime, took lessons in the fiercest battles and reached Berlin with a victory. Khliebnikov rose to the rank of captain and after the end of the war remained in East Germany. One day Pavlo and his fellow major visited a nearby military unit. The military serviceman who opened the door turned out to be Paul’s former classmate. The military decided to celebrate such a meeting a little, but unfortunately it had a tragic ending. The hostilities had recently ended and there were a lot of saboteurs on the territory, it was forbidden to turn on the headlights within the limits of safety, such a decision became fatal for the company. On the way to Pavlo’s military unit the company got into a car accident. Pavlo died together with another serviceman, a major who was driving. But the childhood friend was lucky and survived.


Photo: from the archive of Pavlo Khlebnikov’s family

Years passed, and a military man visited the town where Pavlo’s family had moved. He was looking for local Roma and during his search he went to a small canteen. At one of the tables sat a company of three fellows, from where familiar Romani words were heard. As it turned out, his goal was to find Kateryna Khlebnikova, Pavlo’s mother. Apparently, by the wil

l of fate, his younger brother Mykhailo got into the company of Roma from the canteen. The soldier turned out to be the same classmate who saw Pavlo before his death. He told what had happened and gave the family a helmet, tank headphones, photos and the last overcoat of the deceased. These things became a family heirloom, passed down through the generations and kept as a symbol of the memory of the hero and the resistance that the Roma demonstrated.

From the memories of Mykhailo Kaluhin, cousin of Pavlo Khliebnikov



Reference information: The creation of Roma collective farms and artels was a component of the Soviet policy of collectivization, which was actively implemented in the 20s and 30s of the 20th century. The main goal of such actions in relation to Roma communities was to transfer them to a sedentary lifestyle. However, the violent approach of the authorities eventually nullified these efforts and slowed down the process of sedentarisation.

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