A caving hobby reveals the story of a lifetime and an astonishing testimony to the spirit of family and survival.
When New Yorker Chris Nicola set off to chart yet another nearly unknown cave system in the Western Ukraine he had no idea the cave had a story that would knock him for a loop. As it turns out, the system is one of the longest in the world, a complex labyrinth of one chamber leading to another, complete with dead ends and imperceptible rises and falls in elevation. This is a world that confounds even people with extensive time in the directionless and horizonless underground.
As Nicola began the first of his probes into the complex chambers he made a remarkable discovery. There was writing on the walls. Further examination of the cavern floor uncovered buttons, shoes, bottles and other artifacts of 20th century habitation. He was on to something, but he had no idea what. Had people actually lived in the cave, or were these some kind of childish playthings, brought below as part of make-believe?
Returning home and plowing through his junk mail he was floored by a letter in his mailbox sent in response to his publication of his intended expedition. It was from a survivor of a group of families that had sought refuge in caves in the area, Jews staying out of the claws of the Nazi holocaust.
Chris contacted the man and the story developed, becoming more astonishing with every day’s revelation. The caver united with the family members to form a last expedition to the site and tell the complete story of what it was like to live no place on earth.
With WWII in full force, Western Ukraine was one of the most dangerous places on earth for Jews. Not only would they be rounded up and murdered by the Nazis, but local peasants would kill Jews outright to curry favor with the Nazis and stave off the starvation of their families, to settle old grievances, or out of simple ignorant hate.
Saul, Sam and Esther Stermer were children at the time and barely understood why they would live underground for well over a year. It would be years before they understood that their record breaking survival, the longest underground human existence on record, was a matter of life or death.
The group of families, totaling 38 souls, came close to discovery and death on several occasions. At one point their exit was filled with dirt my Nazi agents in an attempt to seal them in a mass grave. In response, they found another path of soft ground and over the course of three days of continuous work, carved themselves another path to the surface.
As Chris Nicola tells us, there are no evil spirits in the caves, but there are evil spirits. During the holocaust the evil spirits were above ground and the spiritual survivors were underground. They came dreadfully close to starvation, saw their underground water supply disappearing and were constantly at risk of being discovered.
There was nobody above ground who could be trusted. Between the Nazi reign of terror and the creeping deprivation that was taking hold of the local famers there was nobody who could be trusted to keep the secret of the hidden Jews. Cutting wood at night to make small fires underground for cooking was to risk the death of all 38 of the refugees.
The cinematography of this movie takes the audience into this dark nether world until we, like the victims, grow nearly accustomed to the darkness and the spongy lack of perspective of living in ill-defined spaces. As the days crept on the groups seemingly lives on spirit and trust alone. One day the sound of machine guns and cannons from above breaks through the yards of dirt and rock.
The Germans are being forced back as the Russians sweep across the Ukraine. A short time later the work reaches the families that Ukraine has been liberated. In will take days for their eyes and minds to readjust to the colors, light and textures of the real world, the world that shut them into their caves of survival.
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Directed by: Janet Tobias
Featuring: Chris Nicola and Saul, Sam and Esther Stermer
Release Date: April 5, 2013
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violent images
Run Time: 83 minutes
Country: UK / Germany / USA
Language: English / German / Yiddish
Color: Color and Black and White