For 511 days, they hid underground in Ukrainian caves while fellow Jews were being executed by machine gun up above.
The odds that they would survive the Holocaust were slight, for they were dependent entirely upon themselves for finding scarce food outside the caves — and eluding Germans and Ukrainians who would shoot them on sight.
Yet most of these impromptu cave dwellers did survive, their story belatedly coming to light with a 2004 National Geographic article and a flawed new movie, “No Place on Earth.” Through vivid documentary interviews and unpersuasive re-enactments, the film attempts to tell the extraordinary story of the Stermer family and others who found a remarkable way of surviving: hiding deep beneath the face of the earth from late 1942 until the spring of 1944.
“When we were inside (the caves), we were safe,” says Sam Stermer, one of the cave survivors interviewed in “No Place on Earth,” speaking before a recent screening at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie.
“When we came in from the outside (after procuring food) and scraped off the mud, we were like free men. We slept on a bed. We had two bowls of soup a day. … You look around, you see your father, your mother, your sisters, your nieces. … We were very lucky.”
Comparatively speaking, yes, but the terror of those times cannot be overstated. For the Stermers and their extended family, the journey began in October 1942, when Hitler's Einsatzgruppen (operational groups) were rolling across Eastern Europe, rounding up Jews by the thousands, forcing them to dig enormous holes in the ground — their own graves — and machine-gunning them en masse.
The Stermers fled their town of Korolowka and found their first, temporary sanctuary in the Verteba cave, bringing with them supplies to make crude beds and tables, the men venturing out periodically to find potatoes, grains or anything else that might be eaten. The ceiling of the cave was so low that no adult could walk upright.
When they were discovered by the Gestapo the next year, a few were captured and handed over to the Ukrainian police, who murdered two. The rest escaped to another, deeper cave, the Priest's Grotto. Thirty-eight souls entered the cave in May 1943, and 38 left in April 1944, when the Soviets liberated the region.
But the memories of those times linger.
“For 20 years after the war, every night, I was dreaming I was being shot,” Stermer says. “I woke up alive. After 20 years, (the nightmares) disappeared.”
Adds Sima Dodyk, Sam Stermer's niece and also a cave survivor, “I never came so close to dying,” recalling the day the Gestapo seized five of the cave dwellers and handed them over to Ukrainian police. Sima and four others were forced to lie face down on the ground. Two were shot to death; she and two others were spared.
“That was the most horrendous moment of my life,” Dodyk says. “And I remember it today as if it would have just happened.”
None of this story would have been known to the world, however, were it not for an intrepid caver who in the early 1990s traveled to Eastern Europe to try to find some of his family's past. Instead, Chris Nicola discovered in one cave a comb, buttons, a grinding stone: remnants of a life that once had been lived underground.
Through extensive research and Internet queries, Nicola eventually located the Stermer family and their descendants in Canada and elsewhere, learning that family matriarch Esther Stermer had published a memoir, “We Fight to Survive,” in 1960. Nicola and Peter Lane Taylor told the tale in National Geographic, the article eventually capturing the interest of filmmaker and former “60 Minutes” associate producer Janet Tobias.
“When I heard what the Stermers told me, I was actually initially cautious, because there were so many Holocaust documentaries and dramas,” Tobias says. “But the way they told it, with such pride and sense of accomplishment, convinced me that it needed to be told.
“It was the best adventure survival story I've ever heard.”
But to view the executions that the family witnessed and escaped, while literally millions were being massacred around them, as an “adventure survival story” misses the tragic context of these events. The point is underscored by the copious re-enactments in the film, each offering bland, generic, sanitized versions of these events.
What exactly has Tobias tried to create?
“It's a hybrid film, and that was done purposefully,” says the director. “I've never done a documentary with re-enactments. I don't like most of them. They seem to take you out of it.
“I felt that this was the rare film that really called for both (techniques). …
“On the dramatization, there were a number of reasons. No. 1, most of us have maybe been to the entrance of a cave. But to imagine what it would be like to live there for 511 days? I thought that really required dramatization.”
Whether any film could capture the claustrophobia of this setting, the blackness in which the survivors subsisted most of the time, and the severe, chronic traumas of the experience is open to debate. But, alas, the re-enactments here diminish the power of the survivors' on-screen testimony.
Even so, the narrative is well worth knowing, and one has to admire the survivors who had the courage to live it and tell it.
“We always talked about the story,” says Dodyk, hastening to add that she feels her experiences were less severe than those of other survivors. “It's not like people who went through concentration camps, where it was just impossible to speak.”
What do the survivors hope will come of the film release?
“To show people that under horrendous circumstances, (victims) are still human beings,” says Sonia Dodyk, Sima's sister. “They learned professions they never had before. The ingenuity and the courage. And it's to show children that under difficult times, people can survive, and they can step up and be courageous. It's a good thing that everyone should know how we survived and how we fought and we didn't give up.
“The whole thing is not giving up.”
For caver Nicola, who says he didn't know much about the Holocaust before this work, the story proved revelatory.
“I realized the Holocaust was not one individual story,” Nicola says. “It's 6 million individual stories of how brothers, mothers, sons, daughters, classmates and lovers perished.”
And most of these stories have yet to be told.Tribune arts critic Howard Reich is producer-writer-narrator of the PBS documentary film "Prisoner of Her Past," about his mother's hidden Holocaust past.