I am a big fan of documentaries, probably because I love learning new things. Every year, after the Oscars, I check to see what documentaries were up for an Oscar and order them from my library. Some are flops for me, but I would say the majority I enjoy- even if I have to deal with subtitles! This week, I receive No Place on Earth which is about a group of Jewish families that survived underground for over a year to hide from the Nazis. It is a powerful story and told well, interweaving a re-enacted story line with the survivors telling the story.
This story may never have been told if it weren't for a caving enthusiast named Cristos Nicola who went to the western Ukraine in 1993 looking to go spelunking in the caves nearby and also try to learn a bit about his heritage. He went down into the cave at Verteba and started going from "room" to "room." He wasn't too far in when he discovered some odd things - a shoe, a key, an old cup, and writing on the top of the wall.
He was intrigued and after he finished searching, he went to the town nearby and asked about it. Someone told him it was probably the Jews that hid there during World War II. This sparked his interest and he spent the next ten years trying to find the people who had been in there. The Jews accounted for over one third of the townspeople and sadly almost all of them died in the Holocaust. Initially it was hard to get anyone to talk, but finally little bits of the story started coming out. He traced the family to Montreal, Canada and New York.
They told him that in 1939 they could see the writing on the wall regarding Germany and the Nazi regime and applied to emigrate to Canada and the U.S.A. Sadly, by the time the permits came through, the borders were closed and they couldn't leave. Initially they went into the Verteba Cave (which is almost 5 miles long) because it was the one they were aware of. They explored it to find a second way out and found that by clearing an area daily, there was another hole that came up in the middle of a field. There were 26 Ukrainian Jews that entered the caves which included three families. They ranged in age from 2 to 70. They brought in what they could manage and periodically left the caves to scavenge for food. They stayed in that cave for 344 days - the longest time anyone has remained underground. The Nazis found the cave and raided it while they were sleeping, but most managed to escape down into secondary caves and out the other hole. Eight were captured. Six escaped, but two were never heard from again. The six hid in a friend's barn till it was safe, and then were shown to a second cave not known to many called Priest's Grotto. They joined with the others and some new people joined the group bringing the number to 38. The new cave was better as it had 2 lakes. One they drank from, the other was used for washing. While they were safer, there were still townspeople who tried to kill them by digging into and closing up the entrance to the cave with boulders and wood.Luckily the people managed to find their way out by digging in shifts.
I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for them and especially the children. There was little to do down there, but their families told them stories of the Torah about Moses, Esther, Joseph and other biblical heroes. One of the men made sure they still followed the Jewish calendar and followed the traditions of the special days like Sukkoth, Yom Kippur and the like. Finally, one day a local farmer dropped a bottle down the hole with a message inside that the Germans had gone and it was safe to come out. When the children were brought out into the light, they were almost blinded by the brightness of the sun. They were in the caves a total of 511 days. Most of them went to Poland, but found it still wasn't safe there and made their way to the American partition of Germany and later to North America.
I loved listening to the survivors telling the story. It isn't often you get a first hand account like that. The oldest survivor, named Saul was 91 when the documentary was filmed. My favorite part was when they brought the survivors and some of their grandchildren back to the caves. It was such and emotional time for them, not just because they once more entered the caves, but because after years of passing the stories on to their children, they were able to go into the caves as well. They also were able to tell the men filming, that the writing on the walls included their names so they wouldn't be forgotten.
There is so much more to the story, I hope you look for the dvd at your library. It will move you and bless you!
note: photos are from the documentary