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Off the Face of the Earth
IT WAS THE ONLY REFUGE THEY HAD LEFT. In 1942, as the Nazis intensified their hold on Eastern Europe, several Jewish families disappeared into the vast underground labyrinths of western Ukraine. The group ranged from grandmothers to toddlers, and for the next year and a half they lived, worked, ate, and slept in caves directly under the feet of those who would send them to their deaths. Their story is one of history's most remarkable epics of survival. And yet it was almost forgotten until an American caver came across the remnants of their underground asylum and set out to find the survivors of PRIEST'S GROTTO. By Peter Lane Taylor


Photo: the Stermer family
In 1947, three years after their underground ordeal, the Stermer family, plus three new spouses, posed for a portrait. Back row, from left: Shulim Stermer; Chana Richter; her husband, Joseph Richter; Yetta Katz; her husband, Abe Katz; and Shlomo Stermer. Front row, from left: Shulim's wife, Czarna; Esther Stermer; Henia Dodyk; and her daughter Pepkale.

The night of October 12, 1942, when the Stermers finally ran for good, was moonless and unseasonably cold. The roads in and out of the town of Korolówka, deep in the farm country of western Ukraine, were empty of the cart traffic that had peaked during the fall harvest days. After a month of backbreaking work, most residents had already drifted off to sleep.

Zaida Stermer, his wife, Esther, and their six children dug up their last remaining possessions from behind their house, loaded their wagons with food and fuel, and, just before midnight, quietly fled into the darkness. Traveling with them were nearly two dozen neighbors and relatives, all fellow Jews who, like the Stermers, had so far survived a year under the German occupation of their homeland. Their destination, a large cave about five miles to the north, was their last hope of finding refuge from the Nazis' intensifying roundups and mass executions of Ukrainian Jews.


Map: Location of the grotto in Ukraine

The dirt track they rode on ended by a shallow sinkhole, where the Stermers and their neighbors unloaded their carts, descended the slope, and squeezed through the cave's narrow entrance. In their first hours underground, the darkness around them must have seemed limitless. Navigating with only candles and lanterns, they would have had little depth perception and been able to see no more than a few feet. They made their way to a natural alcove not far from the entrance and huddled in the darkness. As the Stermers and the other families settled in for that first night beneath the cold, damp earth, there was little in their past to suggest that they were prepared for the ordeal ahead.

***

At the surface, Priest's Grotto is little more than a weedy hole in the ground amid the endless wheat fields stretching across western Ukraine. A short distance away, a low stand of hardwoods withers in the heat and is the only sign of cover for miles around. With the exception of a shallow, 90-foot-wide (27-meter-wide) depression in the flat ground, there's nothing to indicate that one of the longest horizontal labyrinths in the world lies just underfoot.

On the afternoon of July 18, 2003, I am standing with Chris Nicola, a leading American caver, at the bottom of the sinkhole, sorting our gear. It has taken us four days, traveling by jet, train, and finally ox cart, to get here from New York City. It's tornado season on the Ukrainian plateau, and overhead, the blue sky is rimmed with cumulus clouds sheared off at the top. Our guides, 46-year-old Sergey Yepephanov and 24-year-old Sasha Zimels, are standing next to the rusting, three-foot-wide metal entrance pipe that leads underground. They've been ready to go for an hour.

I've come here to explore Priest's Grotto for the first time. For Nicola, a 20-year veteran of major cave systems in the U.S. and Mexico, our expedition is the culmination of a journey that began in 1993, soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, when he became one of the first Americans to explore Ukraine's famous Gypsum Giant cave systems. On that trip he met dozens of local cavers eager to share news about their recent discoveries. His last excursion was here, to the cave known locally as Popowa Yama, or Priest's Grotto, because of its location on land once owned by a parish priest.

At 77 miles (124 kilometers), Priest's Grotto is the second longest of the Gypsum Giants and currently ranks as the tenth longest cave in the world. Yet what Nicola found fascinating about the cave was located just minutes inside the entrance: Soon after they'd set out, his group passed two partially intact stone walls and other signs of habitation including several old shoes, buttons, and a hand-chiseled millstone. Nicola's guides from the local caving association told him the campsite had already been there when their group first explored that portion of the cave in the early 1960s.

"My guides called the site Khatki, or 'cottage,' " Nicola, now 53, recalls. "They told me that it was settled by a group of local Jews who had fled to the cave during the Holocaust. But that's where the story ended. No one else could remember what had actually happened there, or even if the Jews had survived the war at all."

Intrigued, Nicola began asking questions in the nearby towns. Western Ukraine is a region where the Gypsum Giants have long been revered as national landmarks and where uncomfortable memories of the Holocaust still linger. Some local villagers told him that, after the Russian troops pushed back the Germans in 1944, the survivors were seen stumbling back to town, covered in thick, yellow mud. Others said the Jews never saw daylight again.

On a later trip, Nicola learned more. "Rumors kept developing that at least three families did survive," he says. But how had they lived in such an inhospitable environment, Nicola wondered, and where were they today? As a caver, he was awed by the courage and resourcefulness that such long-term survival underground must have demanded. And he was amazed that the story wasn't better known, even among Holocaust experts.

Back home in Queens, New York, Nicola intensified his efforts to locate a Priest's Grotto survivor. He added information about the story to his Web site on Ukrainian caves (www.uaycef.org), hoping that anyone searching the Internet for the topic would contact him. For four years he got no response. Then, one evening in December 2002, Nicola received an e-mail from a man who said that his father-in-law was one of the original Priest's Grotto survivors and was, in fact, living just a few miles away in the Bronx. "I couldn't believe what I was seeing," Nicola says. "I was afraid to even touch the print key in case I were to accidentally erase it."

Seven months later we are standing outside the cave itself. It's 4:30 p.m. by the time Nicola and I are finished suiting up for entry. Our two dozen duffels contain over 200 pounds (91 kilograms) of photographic and survey gear and enough supplies to remain underground for three days.

As current president of the Ternopil Speleo Club, the local group that has been pushing the exploration of this cave for 40 years, Sergey Yepephanov is eager to show us his domain. He sticks his arm through the steel plate at the top of the pipe, swings open the trapdoor as if he's removing a manhole cover, and ushers us inside. (The club installed the pipe several years ago to keep seasonal mudflows from clogging the cave's entrance.)

Two dozen rickety metal rungs spot-welded to the inside of the pipe disappear straight down into the darkness. There is just enough room for each of us and our gear bags to squeeze down the rusty 30-foot (nine-meter) shaft. When I reach the bottom, I can still make out Sergey's silhouette at the top of the ladder, rimmed by bright, white light. The rush of wind across the prairie is the last sound I hear before he reaches through the small access port and slams the door shut and everything goes black.

For the full story of how the Jewish families survived the Holocaust by living below ground, pick up the June/July issue of Adventure.

Q&A: Learn more about what Peter Lane Taylor and caver Chris Nicola discovered while exploring Priest's Grotto, and find out why the story of the survivors was even more amazing than the rumors Nicola heard while in the Ukraine in our exclusive Q&A >>



Articles
From the print edition, June/July 2004

Grail Trails: The Appalachian, The Pacific Crest, and The Continental Divide
Off the Face of the Earth: Holocaust survival in the underground labyrinths of western Ukraine
Southbound on the Mekong: The pristine mountain jungle, ancient Khmer ruins, and sacred Buddhist caves of tiny Laos
Health: A World of Hurt: What's ailing the next generation of outdoor athletes


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Related Web Sites

More From the Grotto
Learn about writer-photographer Peter Lane Taylor's ongoing projects, and how he and caver Chris Nicola plan to preserve the survivors' story.

Ukrainian Caving
Caver Chris Nicola's Web site gives visitors a closer look at the subterranean lives of the Grotto families and an introduction to caving in the vast labyrinths of Ukraine.

U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Get news on present-day humanitarian horrors, and look back at one of the worst nightmares in human history.



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June/July 2004



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