Monday, April 15th, 2013...5:34 pm

No Place on Earth

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Chris Nicola in the caves

There is no lack of fascinating, moving, and awe-inspiring Holocaust survival stories. But when one watches a documentary film based on the survival of one’s extended family, the story is all the more touching. No Place on Earth is based on the story of the Stermer family survival in the Ukraine during World War II. A cave explorer, Chris Nicola, went to the Ukraine in order to uncover his own family history. Instead, he stumbled upon a cave that had relics of past human dwelling. These humans were not “cavemen” or Neanderthals, but people in the last century! Nicola went on a quest to figure out who these people were, but believed the trail would run dry.

Sam (left) and Manuel Bardash (right, my grandfather)

Sam Stermer (left) and Manuel Bardash (right, my grandfather)

The film features Sam and Saul Stermer, and Sonia and Sima Dodyk – four out of about 38 survivors from the caves. I am related to one of these amazingly courageous individuals by marriage, as Sam’s wife is second cousins with my grandfather. I had heard some vague snippets of their story here and there – pretty much, all I knew was that I had some family that had lived in a cave during the Holocaust. This film, though, really opened my eyes to what they experienced for 511 days underground.

Sam, Saul, Sonia, and Sima all entered the caves at very young ages – Sima was a toddler when she first submerged underground! They first went into Verteba Cave. The large extended family brought tons of supplies, and even constructed beds! Soon, however, they had to move deeper into the caves to avoid being seen by peasants and police. A police raid ended up killing two of the 38 dwellers, and forced the group to relocate to a new underground dwelling. The second cave, Priest’s Grotto, had to be entered through a small fox hole right outside of the forest. To enter, they had to slide through the mud.

In both cave experiences, the group was forced to overcome multiple difficulties. Because of betrayals by neighbors and peasants, they had to find or fabricate additional entrances and exits to their underground quarters. They also went days and nights without food and water, and often slept 18+ hours to fend off the hunger. The men of the families risked their lives daily to go out and steal food and supplies. Sam and Saul were among these young men who had to make the choice – die in the caves without food, or at least try to find something at the risk of being caught and killed.

I can’t imagine having to go through this experience! At points, Sam and Saul’s explanations had a tone of excitement, fun and adventure as they recounted exploring the majestical caves and sneaking out to get food (and even stealing a horse)! As young adults, being afraid of every move and of getting caught, I think it was important for them to have this sense of adventure and curiosity. For the girls and women, including the 79 years old matriarch,Esther, who constantly remained in the cave throughout the entire 511 day period, these expeditions, however, must have been most worrisome. At first Sonia and Sima described Verteba as a magical castle, “a playground”, a place to play and explore, but once they were forced to move deeper in, and once they transferred to Priest’s Grotto, the fun and novelty of it was gone. Their days were spent waiting for the men to come home.

At the end of the documentary, Sam, Saul, Sonia, and Sima returned to the Ukraine with some of their grandchildren to see where they spent this intense period of their childhood. For Sima, 1/3 of her life at the point of liberation had been spent underground! Chris Nicola led them back to the caves. Priest’s Grotto was too difficult to maneuver but they were all able to re-enter Verteba Cave where they were transported back in time. It was a really emotional experience seeing these survivors with their grandchildren inNo Place on Earth the location of such struggle.

All of the hardship was worth it, as now there are 125+ descendants from the original 38 of the family. I’m very glad that this story has been put out to the public and isn’t remaining merely a personal heirloom. It is an important story to tell; not only does it show the horrific conditions some had to live in through the Holocaust, but it celebrates human strength and courage. I believe it is truly a miraculous story!

I would definitely recommend seeing this film. The documentary follows the same format as many History Channel documentaries – narration, dramatic reenactments, and interviews. No Place on Earth is a conversation starter, and a great educational film!

Marina B. Nebro

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