Dr. Elliot Prager, Principal of Englewood’s Moriah School, saw a film in New York that was so gripping, he decided that not only should the middle school students see it, they should meet the man featured in the film to hear the story directly from him. On Yom Ha’shoah, the students watched No Place on Earth, a documentary about cave explorer Chris Nicola who went to the Ukraine searching for clues to his family’s history, and instead uncovered the unprecedented story of 38 Jews who hid from the Nazis in a cave for 344 days. The film shows how Nicola tracked down survivors who told him their story, and how they returned to the cave with Nicola to show him what happened. On the day following Yom Ha’shoah, in a surprise for the students, Nicola came to Moriah and talked about his experiences.
“The movie really grabbed the kids,” Dr. Prager said. “Here is this guy who was a hip, cool cave explorer. The scene where he was lowering himself into the cave really caught their attention.”
Nicola said he was astounded when he first went into the cave and found objects like a key and a shoe, and saw how massive the cave was. “I can appreciate what people have to go through just for a day trip in a cave,” Nicola said in an interview prior to the program. “I knew that whoever was there did something monumental; they had to be there for a long time.” And he was determined to get to the bottom of the mystery.
It took nine years of research, and more twists and turns than paths in a cave, to find out what had happened. A few locals suggested that Jews might have lived there but no one knew who, or whether or not anyone had survived.
In the 1990s, Nicola started looking at Jewish geological websites, guessing that someone looking for information on relatives might go there and connect with him. He put in the key words that might attract survivors. He had almost given up when in 2002 he got an email from the son-in-law of one of the survivors and the story began to unfold. He met first with Sol Wexler, who had been a child in the cave, and lived just seven miles from Nicola in New York, and then went to Montreal to meet Sol’s cousins, the Stermers, who were with him in the cave. Nicola brought along Peter Lane Taylor, a fellow cave explorer who was also a photographer and writer. The two had been discussing doing an article on the caves of Ukraine.
In addition to interviews with the survivors, Nicola and Taylor learned much of the story from a memoir, written first in Yiddish and then privately published in English, by Esther Stermer, the matriarch of the family. The book was titled, We Fight to Survive. And fight they did. Esther’s strong will and determination led the extended family to stay together and live.
Five related families fled to a well-known cave called Verteba on October 12, 1942. They learned to navigate in total darkness, build walls, and make do with the barest minimum of everything—food, water, and light. A few of the men in the family had been given permission to collect scrap metal and remain in town. They used the proceeds to buy supplies on the black market and deliver them to the cave.
The families began to worry that they would be discovered and hid deeper in the cave. One night, the Germans burst through. Esther stood up to them, giving those in back more time to flee. Eight prisoners were taken and three managed to escape. Sol Wexler’s mother and brother were killed.
For two weeks, the families roamed the area. Then a Ukrainian friend of Nissel Stermer told them about “The sink hole of the priest.” The Stermers found it, and at the bottom there was an unassuming entrance leading to a huge cave. Nicola said the Stermers named it The Cave of the Priest, or Priest’s Grotto. This cave was an improvement—it contained a huge underground lake so water was more readily available. When they weren’t sleeping—which they did about eighteen to twenty hours a day—the families developed a division of labor so each person knew what he had to do. Now there was no one on the outside to bring them food. The leader of each of the five families had to leave every five or six weeks on a dangerous mission to procure supplies. One day, after returning, they found that their entrance had been sealed. After finding a small gap in the rocks, the men dug upwards for four days and finally created a new opening.
In the beginning of April, 1944, the Ukrainian friend of the family left a bottle with a message: “The Germans are already gone.” Ten days later, having left their belongings deep in the cave, the family emerged into snow and mud. They went first to a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, and then on to new lives in Canada and New York.
Nicola and Lane developed the story into an article for National Geographic’s Adventure Magazine, and were then approached by Kar-Ben Publishing, who printed The Secret of Priest’s Grotto. Lane had a friend who knew film director Janet Tobias and asked her to consider doing a film. She was reluctant at first, saying that with the release of Schindler’s List, there was no interest in another Holocaust film. But the friend persuaded her to meet with Nicola and Lane. She travelled with them to Ukraine, along with a small film crew, and made her decision to do the movie. No Place on Earth was released in 2012. It won the Audience Award of the 2012 Hamptons International Film Festival, came in second at the 2013 Palm Springs International Film Festival, and was nominated for Best Documentary Screenplay in 2014 by the Writers Guild of America.
Nicola was born in England in 1951 and retired one and a half years ago after a 37-year career in law enforcement. He still explores caves, “about once a month,” he said. He was just in Vietnam and plans to go to China. He doesn’t have siblings but visits cousins in England every two years. And now he considers the Stermers his family. “When my mom was ill three years ago, I didn’t want to tell the Stermers and bother them,” Nicola said. “But they called every other day to ask how she was.”
The story of the Priest’s Grotto Cave is still a work in progress. Nicola has been helping to build an exhibit in a local Ukrainian museum, expected to open in August. Nicola calls it “a genocide project like no other in which the grandchildren of the Priest’s Grotto Survivors are working hand-in-hand with the grandchildren of western Ukraine’s Nazi occupiers to honor the Priest’s Grotto Survivors and 14,000 of their friends and relatives who perished at the hands of the Nazis.”
The theme of this year’s Yom Ha’shoah commemoration was Gevurah, heroism, Dr. Prager said. “Not just physical heroism but spiritual resistance, moral and psychological resistance.” The brave souls who survived in the Priest’s Grotto Cave are the very definition of all forms of Gevurah.
By Bracha Schwartz