For 511 days during WWII, five Ukrainian families escaped their fate in the ghettos by taking refuge in a nearby cave system. During their time underground, there was no light, no ready food source, and no guarantee they would remain safe. They resided in two caves: first the Verteba Cave, and later Popowa Yama (or Priest's Grotto). They set the record for longest recorded time spent living under the Earth’s surface.
Over the course of 50 years, none of the refugees spoke openly of their experiences, as they felt they might need to return to the cave someday. But in 1993, American cave explorer Chris Nicola found shoes, buttons, and other bizarre human artifacts in the otherwise remote underground cavern.
After a dedicated internet campaign to find who had once stayed in the cave, Nicola finally came into contact with some of the younger children and teenagers who lived in the cave, now old and living in the eastern United States and Canada. Through a series of interviews and an emotionally loaded visit to the cave, Nicola and other historians pieced together the story of the Stermer and Wexler families, along with three others.
Their experiences are the central premise of the 2013 docudrama No Place on Earth. While the film is more of a "dramatic recreation" than a genuine documentary, it offers heartrending real footage of the surviving Stermer family members, as well as the caves themselves.
The true marvel of the story is the refugees' sheer skill and the improbability of their survival. How did these families manage to survive in the cave, avoiding certain religious persecution that awaited them on the outside, for a year and a half? Through a series of creative tactics, a strong leader, and deep trust in one another.
The intricate cave systems of Verteba Cave and Priest's Grotto were not easily navigable even with the appropriate resources. The lack of natural light only compounded the difficulty. Despite the circumstances, these Ukraine natives understood the history of their cave systems and knew people had lived within them in prehistoric times, so they knew it was possible.
In order to move around, the refugees learned how to navigate the cave in a tactile way, using their hands and feet. They learned their way around by memorizing the cracks, rock textures, and the curvature of the turns.
The Verteba Cave system is one of the largest in Europe, which made it seem like it would be very secure. That was not quite the case. When the first cave was unearthed by the Gestapo, the situation was bleak, but not desolate; knowing that discovery was always a possibility, the refugees had planned ahead and dug an escape passage in the back of the Verteba Cave.
After noticing a soft spot in the ceiling, they built a carefully camouflaged hatch that blended in with the earth, so farmers would not see it or accidentally fall through it. When they were no longer hiding from the police, the families moved on to a larger cave in a nearby grotto.
When night fell and there was less risk of running into a farmer or passerby, the able-bodied Stermer boys and men crawled out of the cave to forage for supplies. They collected grains, vegetables, and whatever other raw materials they could get their hands on in such a remote area of Ukraine. To maintain secrecy, they would cover their tracks in the snow as they moved.
As harrowing as this ordeal sounds, the cave felt relatively secure and comfortable in comparison to the outside world. One of the boys, Sam Stermer, recollects:
When we came in from the outside (after procuring food) and scraped off the mud, we were like free men. We slept on a bed. We had two bowls of soup a day... You look around, you see your father, your mother, your sisters, your nieces... We were very lucky.
None of this physical and psychological fortitude would be possible without the unwavering confidence of Esther Stermer, the matriarch of one of the families. When all of the Jewish people in the town were ordered to register, Esther insisted her family would not attend, and would instead seek shelter.
Esther moved everyone into the cave along with her husband, six children, two grandchildren, and four other families. On the day the Gestapo located and entered one of the entrances to the cave, Esther ordered everyone to hide under the bed. The men were away foraging, and all of the other families were under the bed, leaving Esther standing in plain view.
Esther, unfazed, confronted the policeman with his gun drawn and asked what the purpose of his visit would be. After insulting the Gestapo and exchanging some gold for the lives of the family, Esther persuaded the soldiers to leave. Though Esther and her granddaughter were left unscathed, several other family members were slain.