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The Darkest Days
Photo: cave markings

In 1993, veteran caver Chris Nicola became one of the first Americans to explore Ukraine's famous Gypsum Giant cave systems. While there, during an expedition into the tenth longest cave in the world, his team came across two partially intact stone walls and other signs of habitation. Local residents, who revere the Gypsum Giants as national treasures, told Nicola that a group of Ukrainian Jews spent months in the cave evading the horrors of the Holocaust. No one seemed to know who had survived, however, and some questioned whether any had seen daylight again. Fascinated, Nicola grew determined to learn how people with no prior caving experience or specialized equipment were able to live in such a hostile environment for so long.

Ten years later, after an extensive search, Nicola located six of the cave survivors, most of them members of the extended Stermer family. The story they told was even more remarkable than the legend Nicola had heard while in the Ukraine, involving not one cave hideout, but two, and nearly two years spent underground. "There may not be another story like this," explains Michlean Amir, reference archivist of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. "Such a large group of people avoided digging their own graves or being shipped off to concentration camps by successfully utilizing a natural phenomenon."

Last July, Nicola and writer-photographer Peter Lane Taylor traveled 7,000 miles to western Ukraine on assignment for Adventure to learn how the group, which numbered 38 in all, was able to survive below ground for nearly two years. Their first stop was Verteba, a well-known tourist cave where the families spent their first six months. There, the Jews struggled to find enough water and suffered from the toxic buildup of smoke from their cooking fire. Then on May 5, 1943, after narrowly avoiding capture at the hands of the Gestapo, the families relocated to a previously unexplored cave located beneath land owned by a local parish priest. It was called Popowa Yama, or Priest's Grotto, and it would be the Jews refuge from the Holocaust for the next 344 days.

By piecing together interviews with the survivors and artifacts they found while in Ukraine, Nicola and Taylor were able to develop a clear picture of the Jews underground life. The fruits of their findings appear in this month's issue. Below, Adventure asks Nicola about uncovering this forgotten story of courage, loyalty, and survival.

We have all heard extraordinary Holocaust survival stories, what about this story makes it so unique?
It was the sheer magnitude of their survival and how they survived together. In my opinion, the western Ukraine was the worst place on Earth for Jews to live during World War II. Hitler was on one border sending in troops whose sole purpose was to eliminate all Jews, and Stalin was on the other enforcing a scorched earth policy by burning everything that couldn't be moved. The chance of a Jewish person surviving at all was less than 5 percent. But what made this story different, and what is rarely seen in any Holocaust survival story, is how these families stayed virtually intact.

How did you get in touch with the survivors?
After ten years of extensive research and a lot of dead ends, I came across a number of sophisticated Internet search sites for the Jewish community, used by thousands of Jews to look for missing relatives. I thought if I put the right words on my own Web site [www.uaycef.org]—such as "cave" and "grotto"—then someone searching would pick up on them. Sure enough, in 2002, I got an e-mail late at night and couldn't believe my eyes. It was a message from the son-in-law of Sol Wexler. He said his father-in-law survived the Holocaust by hiding in a cave. I was so excited—I was afraid to even touch the print key in case I were to accidentally erase it. I calmed down, responded, and got to meet Sol Wexler. He eventually led me to the others.

After you met them, what did it take to organize an expedition?
We interviewed the survivors extensively and worked closely with the Ukrainian caving community to arm ourselves with as much information as possible. Our idea was to retrace the exact routes the families took from the first cave [where they were ambushed by the Nazis after six months], through their flight into the woods, and then finally to the sinkhole and Priest's Grotto—their home for the next year. At one point we even ended up on an ox cart on the same road they followed.

It was amazing, because after hearing the story I was able to recognize special things I'd missed before. For instance, one of the survivors, only four years old at the time, said she remembers playing with a bright, shining crystal in the cave. One of the largest crystals in the world is close to their campsite inside Priest's Grotto, and chunks of it will sometimes fall to the ground. When we saw the crystal, we realized that that was where she used to play.

What other artifacts did you see differently after you'd heard the survivors' story?
The millstone really struck me. I am in my 50s but pretty strong, and I couldn't even move it. Yet Nissel Stermer carried it on his back for three or four miles. That millstone was their life. They used it to grind grain to make bread, which was the main part of their diet. Nissel must have gotten a lot of strength from his family. I think it's like the stories about mothers, full of adrenaline, gaining superhuman strength to lift cars or bend metal to save their children. Nissel knew this millstone would save his entire family. That hit me like a brick wall.

Unlike the families, who knew nothing about caves, you are an experienced caver. What do you think were the greatest obstacles to their survival?
Cavers wear specialized clothing. Without it, hypothermia is always a problem. When the families worked, cut wood, or leveled the ground, they would sweat. As the sweat evaporated, their bodies cooled down. Ironically, their hard work worked against them and could have put them in a hypothermic state. They also had to contend with bats, a source of disease); malnutrition; smoke from their cooking fire contaminating water sources; and getting lost in the dark labyrinth. The smoke in particular was very dangerous. The four-year-old girl almost died from smoke inhalation in the first cave due to poor ventilation. The Jews had no choice but to learn to adapt quickly and along the way developed some absolutely ingenious ways to overcome these hardships.

Can you give some examples?
The first cave was horrific, but they were smart enough to build a spectacular escape exit. They dug up through a soft spot in the ceiling and enforced and camouflaged a hatch so farmers wouldn't find it or fall through. It saved their lives. In the second cave, which was much more suitable for living, they set up designated areas for cooking and sleeping, they used the natural ventilation system of the cave and built walls to channel the smoke away from other areas. The families also had an elaborate password system for the men who would go out of the cave for provisions. They had a good password and a bad password. The good password meant everything was OK; the bad password meant an enemy was forcing them into the cave. They had few candles, so light was limited to three short periods each day. After enough time spent wandering in the dark, they memorized the feel of the cave floor on their bare feet. It was like directions in braille.

What artifacts did you find in the cave?
The cave was a time capsule. We found medicine bottles, dozens of shoes, buttons, and other wonderful things that reflected their daily life. The Jews left all of their personal effects in the first cave, so in Priest's Grotto, all they had left were tools. When we were digging around we came across a railroad spike. One of the survivors had told us it was their most valuable tool because they used it to chisel stone. We also found a key under one of the beds, where people today hide their valuables. Peter and I think it was a key to one of the families' houses and they were keeping it safe for when they could use it again one day. But when the family finally came out of the cave, they never went back to retrieve anything. They left it all in the cave in case they ever needed to return.

What is it like to spend a substantial amount of time underground?
When you first go into a cave, you feel like you are in the smallest area you have ever been in your life. Your heart pounds, and you sweat. You have this horrible feeling of confinement. It is very important that you get acclimated or you will get tunnel vision, which prevents you from focusing on the important things such as hydration, staying warm, and not getting lost. The families never got completely comfortable because they knew they could be ambushed at any time. One survivor said her heart stopped every time the men left to replenish supplies because she never knew if they would see them again. Not seeing the sun for almost a year was also very hard. But at that time, if they saw the sun, it meant they were in great danger.

I've heard stories of Holocaust survivors always carrying food so they will never have to be hungry again. Do the Priest's Grotto survivors have similar habits?
One of the survivors admitted to doing just that, carrying food with her. She explained that when they lived in the cave, they decided at one point that only the men who ventured out for provisions would get extra rations, so the others were constantly hungry. Also, one of the survivor's children said that he noticed his father and two uncles have 16-foot ceilings in the entryways of their homes. I think that's preferable to the small hole they entered feet-first for a year!

Do you think that people today could survive like the families did?
Modern-day people who sit at a computer all day? I would say no for two reasons. First of all, these were hands-on people. They were carpenters and merchants who had to provide for themselves, especially during the occupation. They also grew up knowing the history of the caves in the area and that ancient people lived in them, so they knew it could be done. Secondly, the Stermer grandmother taught her family not to trust authority. At one point, before they fled to the caves, all Jews were told to meet in town and register. The grandmother decided they were not going to go. The family worried but they obeyed the grandmother. That day, in five separate towns, the Germans rounded up thousands of Jews and many were never seen again—it had been a trap. I think people today often don't give themselves the right to question authority.

Why isn't this story more widely known?
When the families first came out of the caves, they had no idea if they were going to need to go back again, so they kept it a secret. When the Stermers immigrated to Canada the secret left with them. Later, when they were ready to tell their story, no one believed them. Their friends who survived the same Holocaust had very different experiences. They had numbers on their wrists and slept on bare wooden floors covered in lice. The families in the cave slept on warm beds, rarely got sick, and still had their family members with them when it was over. I can understand why some people didn't believe them and why they never told the story again.

What have you gained from this experience?
Talking to survivors put a face on the horrors of the Holocaust. I wasn't looking at 60-year-old black-and-white footage of death camps. I was looking into the souls of people who survived it. Individuals get lost in the large numbers. But looking into the eyes of the survivors, and then looking into the eyes of their children and grandchildren, was a real and very personal experience. When we came back from Ukraine in July of 2003, Peter and I showed the survivors and their families the slides we took inside the caves. At the end I put the picture of the names they wrote on the wall of the cave. Everyone was speechless. Not just the survivors, who had never mentioned this, but their children and grandchildren. Many eyes filled up with tears. Right below the names was the year 1943. For the first time, the children and grandchildren saw concrete evidence of how their grandparents and parents lived and survived in that cave. It was wonderful to give that back to them.

What is your next step in this story?
I think we owe it to the survivors and their families to protect the caves and the artifacts there. It is history and a story with some amazing lessons: family, loyalty, survival, and perseverance. We took photographs of what we found and mapped their locations. But it should all be preserved and cataloged by professionals to ensure that other generations can see the amazing way they lived and struggled to stay together.

To read the full story of the cave survivors, pick up the June/July issue of Adventure. Get an online preview >>

Photo courtesy of Peter Lane Taylor


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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.


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June/July 2004

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