“No Place on Earth”
An Untold Story is Told
Thirty-eight Ukrainian Jews survived the second World War living in cave for eighteen months (a significant and important period of time) and we are learning about it now. With Holocaust memorial day just around the corner, I cannot think of a more appropriate new film to watch. The eighteen months that they lived underground is the longest recorded sustained underground survival I history. The story came to light when it was unearthed by Chris Nicola, a caving enthusiast and it is an example of ingenuity, willpower and endurance. It is proof that there are Holocaust stories that have yet to be heard.
The film is a documentary with scenes of graphic re-enactment, interviews with survivors and the narrative of Chris Nicola and we realize that this is not just a story of survival but one about the human spirit and the value of life. Here is a family led by Esther Stermer, the matriarch who led her people into the underground and away from the ghettoes and death camps.
The film opens with the discovery of a cave with artifacts that seem to be contemporary. Nicola came upon the cave when he was spelunking in the Ukraine and searched for several years to find an explanation for what he found. Suddenly we see a group of unidentified people living in the cave and we hear a voiceover saying, “Here we are in the grotto, buried alive.” We forget Nicola and the movie begins with a re-enactment introducing us to two related Jewish families from the Ukraine who had lived in the very cave that Nicola had discovered. They were 38 members of the Esthmer and Wexler families who fled their town, Korolowska and went to the countryside looking for refuge and finding safety in two caves that were actually uninhabitable (Verteba Cave and Priest’s Grotto) and there they lived for 511 days and were able to survive the war.
Cut into the re-enactment are interviews with the youngest survivors of the families—Saul and Sam Stermer and Sonia and Sima Dodyk. It is hard for them to tell their stories and hence the re-enactment. We can only imagine how difficult it is to tell these stories. Actors re-enact the tales of the past and the original survivors, now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, appear in talking head fashion to provide narrative, insight and emotion to what they experienced all those years ago. Much of the re-enactments occur in dark caves, while the interviews are conducted with black backdrops and dim lighting so that the audience feels the darkness they experienced.
The film reaches its pinnacle as the survivors travel back to the caves, accompanied by their spelunker friend, and we witness as these former cave dwellers see their previous abode for the first time since 1944. It gives them a sense of closure and one of the grandchildren tells us that the cave was his first bedtime story and we are reminded that telling a story has great power.