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Notes from Their Underground
For Chris Nicola, a veteran caver, a typical day’s exploration of underground caverns takes no more than eight hours. But a journey that began the day he first explored a 77-mile-long gypsum cave in Ukraine in 1993 took 20 years to complete.
It was in those caves that he discovered the first threads of one of the more incredible tales of survival during the Holocaust.
While exploring the cave system with his local guides, Nicola came upon artifacts that had no business being there: shoes, a key, combs, earthen benches — indications of lives lived in subterranean darkness.
“When I found them, the guides were trying to rush me by this one site with all of these artifacts,” recalls Nicola. They weren’t trying to cover up anything, he says — they knew next to nothing about the local history of the Holocaust. “It didn’t interest them — ‘We’re interested in finding new passages, not old shoes,’ they said to me.”
Nicola, whose job is to investigate allegations of criminal activity against licensed professionals in the state of New York, took careful note of what he found. When he returned home, he began trying to piece together the evidence that ultimately resulted, two decades later, in the release of No Place on Earth, a new documentary by Janet Tobias, a veteran producer of programs like 60 Minutes and Frontline.
The film tells the story of the Stermers and the Wexlers, two related families who shared a remarkable struggle.
In 1942, when the Nazis began rounding up the Jews of their village of Korolowka, Esther Stermer, the matriarch of the family, knew that if they were put on the trains, they were as good as dead. She instructed everyone to dig out hiding places around their farm. But they soon realized that between the Nazis’ relentless searches and the potential for their neighbors’ turning on them, a better, safer place was needed.
The solution: the Stermers and Wexlers packed up their belongings and, from 1942 to 1944 — a total of 511 days — 38 family members went to hide in the caves near their town.
For those 18 months, which Tobias claims is the longest recorded instance of living underground ever, the women and children never left the caves, and the men left only under cover of darkness to bring back supplies like firewood and millstones to grind wheat for their bread.
As Sima Dodyk, who was only 5 years old when she first entered the caves, recalls in the film, “When we finally left the cave, I asked someone to blow out the candle, because I had forgotten that the sun” — which she had mistaken for a blindingly bright candle — “even existed.”
If not for a colleague of Tobias’ at PBS, the story of Nicola’s cave finds and the story of the Stermers and Wexlers might have been relegated to family lore and a 2003 article in National Geographic Adventure magazine. Tobias remembers saying to her colleague, ‘There are so many great Holocaust stories in the canon already; I’m just not sure that it makes sense for me.’ ”
So what changed her mind? “It’s one of the best stories I have ever heard in my life,” she exclaims. “The family told their story with such pride and accomplishment, and they had such joy and spirit in living — it was so different from what I had heard about other survivors.”
Tobias wasn’t alone — she says that Shoah Foundation interviewers told her that the family was the happiest group of people they ever interviewed.
And why not? Despite living underground for an inconceivable length of time and dealing with privations like constant hunger, inadequate supplies and only a few candles to combat the absolute darkness, the families beat overwhelming odds to survive the Holocaust.
“When problems came their way, like when they were buried alive by villagers, they solved them, they didn’t just give up” Tobias says, referring to an incident dramatized in the film. Former neighbors discovered their first hiding place in the caves and filled in the entrance, forcing the family to search frantically until they were able to successfully dig a new, camouflaged, passageway
To a person, the family members interviewed by Tobias speak fondly of their time in the cave (Tobias says that Saul Wexler, Esther’s nephew, still refers to the cave as his “mother”) and, when the filmmaker offered the survivors the chance to go visit their cave, she says, four of them jumped at the chance.
For Tobias, the survivors’ desire to be reunited with their cave is completely understandable. “In a world that had gone crazy, where everything was upside down, and evil and good had switched places, the cave became a warm, protective place. The scary place was outside.”
IF YOU GO
No Place on Earth
Opens April 26
at Ritz at the Bourse