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Film recounts family's survival in caves

Tags: Arts
Brothers Sam Stermer, left, and Saul Stermer are seen inside the Verteba cave in the film No Place on Earth. [Photo courtesty of Magnolia Pictures]

The incredible true story of how a group of Jews in Ukraine found refuge from the Nazis in a cave 70 feet below the surface of the earth is told in a film opening at Cinéma du Parc on May 31.

Those 38 people remained hidden there for 344 days. They were mostly members of the extended Stermer family, who settled in Montreal after World War II. Brothers Sam and Saul Stermer, as well as their nieces, sisters Sonia Hochman and Sima Blitzer (née Dodyk), are featured in No Place on Earth, a 2012 documentary by New York-based Janet Tobias.

Most of the refugees actually spent a total of 511 days underground. They had previously lived in another cave for about six months from October 1942 until the time they were noticed and had to move. 

They emerged from the second cave, the huge, labyrinthine Priest’s Grotto, where they had survived from May 5, 1943, to April 12, 1944, only after Soviet troops entered the area.

They ranged from a boy of two to a 75-year-old woman.

The women and girls never came up during that whole time. The men and boys slipped out at night to get the grain and potatoes they subsisted on, and to gather firewood and other supplies.

The official record for a human being living underground continuously is 205 days, and that was under a carefully controlled, NASA-sponsored experiment.

This story was little known outside the family, natives of Korolowka, Ukraine, until quite recently. It began to unravel 20 years ago when American spelunker Chris Nicola was exploring a cave in western Ukraine and was astounded to discover walls, trenches, handmade implements and other signs of encampment deep beneath a wheat field.

Priest’s Grotto, one of the longest caves in the world at 77 miles, had been off-limits to outsiders for decades until the fall of communism. Because of its narrow tube-like passage it is also physically one of the most difficult to access.

It would take Nicola years of searching before he pieced together what had happened there and found the survivors.

In 2004, this tale of extraordinary resourcefulness on the part of untrained, unequipped people came to wide attention for the first time in an article in National Geographic’s Adventure magazine. Three years later, the cave-dwellers’ story was published as a book by Nicola and fellow caver/photographer/writer, American Peter Lane Taylor, titled The Secret of Priest’s Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story.

Tobias, a veteran documentary maker, admits she was not enthusiastic when a television colleague suggested it be made into a film.

“There are so many great Holocaust dramas and documentaries that have been done,” she recalled. “The bar is really high for adding a story to that canon, and to do one at a higher level would be tough.”

Finally persuaded to take a look at it, Tobias met with Nicola and the Stermers in Montreal, where they made successful lives in construction, and she realized she had to do it.

“I was just so taken with what joyous storytellers the surviving family members were regarding what happened to them. There was obviously the drama and the darkness, but also an incredible sense of pride about what they were able to accomplish together.”

The 84-minute film follows the now elderly survivors, along with some of their grandchildren, as they return to Ukraine, to both Priest’s Grotto and Verteba, their first hideout. It was their first time back to the sites.

Despite their advanced age and the powerful emotions the return stirred, they all went down Verteba once again after 67 years.

They attempted the descent into Priest’s Grotto, with the aid of specially designed harnesses and a winch system, but didn’t make it all the way down. Their grandchildren did, however, allowing them to see the place that had been family lore until then.

Touchingly, everyday objects that they used, including the grinding stone to make flour, remain as they were left in the cave.

Tobias got a sense of just how grim conditions were in the Grotto with the mid-50s-degree chill, the damp and, of course, the blackness.

“They had some candles and kerosene in jars with wicks, which they had to use sparingly. They had nothing, except each other and their ingenuity,” she said.

They also lived in constant fear of being discovered.

Yet, Saul Stermer, 90 at the time of the filming in 2010, tells of how safe, even happy, they felt in their underground home.

“That was one of the things that attracted me to this story,” Tobias said. “This is a story about how heaven and hell switch. The dark, scary places were actually where safety was, and outside were the monsters. The world was turned upside down.”

No Place on Earth also includes a dramatic re-enactment filmed in Hungary for logistical reasons. Tobias drew upon the memoirs of Esther Stermer (the Stermer brothers’ mother), which she wrote in Yiddish in 1960, as well as the writings of her nephew Sol Wexler, who lives in New York. His mother and brother were murdered by the Gestapo after the group left the first cave – the only two that did not survive.

Tobias is also struck by how genial the Stermers remained despite their ordeal. “What really surprises me the most… is how, after seeing one of the ugliest parts of war – genocide – how they figured out how to be graceful, good people. After all that had happened to them, they learned not to lose their soul.

“That’s something I want to take away from this, and what I hope the audience will, too.”

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