“It’s an incredible story,” said Tom Powers, a Toronto International Film Festival programmer a few minutes before No Place On Earth was screened last week.
He was not engaging in hyperbole.
Janet Tobias’ 84-minute documentary film documents an amazing and unique tale of stamina, courage, grit and survival during the Holocaust.
For 511 days, from 1942 onward, 38 Jews from five extended families saved themselves from certain death at the hands of the Nazis by retreating into two gypsum caves in western Ukraine.
“Our situation was desperate,” wrote one of the survivors, Esther Stermer in her memoirs, We Fight to Survive, published in 1960. “Where can we survive? Clearly, there was no place on earth for us.”
Stermer, the resourceful matriarch of the family, devised the idea of hiding in a cave, knowing that it was their only hope of getting through the Nazi occupation unscathed.
Stermer and her family lived in the village of Korolowka. They planned to immigrate to Canada on Sept. 8, 1939, but with the outbreak of war, they were unable to leave.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union their lives were imperiled. Stermer, a strong and resolute woman, convinced her sister, Leiche Wexler, and her two sons to seek safety in a cave known as Verteba. There they were joined by other Jews from the region.
Although they had candles and kerosene lanterns, they lived mostly in the dark, subsisting on dripping water from rocks and food bought or stolen from peasants.
In the spring of 1943, they were discovered by a German patrol, but most of them managed to escape through a secret exit.
Miraculously, the Stermers found another cave, the priest’s grotto cave, in which to hide. Along with a group of other Jews, they remained in that cavernous cave until the Red Army liberated the area in April 1944.
“We beat the odds,” says one of the survivors who lives in Montreal today.
By living underground for so long, they broke a world record for uninterrupted underground survival, a record that still stands.
Tobias, an American television journalist and producer who launched her career on CBS’ 60 Minutes, got wind of the story a few years ago when a friend brought it to her attention.
Initially, she was reluctant to pursue the tip, she admitted. “There are so many great Holocaust dramas and documentaries that have been done.”
She changed her mind after reading a National Geographic article by Chris Nicola, an avid American caver of Ukrainian ancestry who had explored the priest’s grotto cave and had found objects there such as buttons and ladies’ shoes. These artifacts belonged to the Jewish families who had found a haven there.
Nicola’s account so aroused Tobias’ interest that she met with him and the Stermers. “I just thought, ‘This is really a special story about family and friendship and a belief in the faith to do the impossible.’”
Once Tobias, a history buff, was convinced the Stermers were good storytellers, she went ahead with the project, recruiting producer Rafael Marmor to coordinate it.
No Place On Earth unfolds through on-camera interviews, wartime footage and reenactments.
Tobias wanted to shoot the dramatic recreations in Ukraine, but could not due to practical issues. She and her colleagues looked for substitutes and settled on Hungary.
“We needed, from a cinematic standpoint, a location with caves which were visually appropriate, and one with nearby historical villages which would fit our story,” she explained.
The caves had to be big enough so that the Hungarian actors could easily fit inside.
One of the most poignant moments in the film occurs when some of the survivors and their children and grandchildren return to the Verteba cave in a sentimental journey.
“The idea of bringing them back to this place would certainly stir up some strong emotions,” she said.
Dark places usually repel people, but the Jews who found refuge in these caves considered them nothing less than heavenly havens.
“They were free people inside the caves,” said Tobias. “This is a story about how heaven and hell trade places. They found safety in the caves. The monsters were outside. The world was turned upside down.”
Tobias and her associates have received offers for theatrical distribution in the United States, but have yet to decide which one to accept.
She said that No Place on Earth will be broadcast on the History Channel after its theatrical debut.