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Jews Survived WWII by Living in a Cave

November 21, 2009 08:00 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
For almost two years, the Stermer family lived with several other Jews in underground caves in the Ukraine to avoid being captured by Nazis, a little-known yet incredible tale.

Courage Underground

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The Stermer family and several others spent 344 consecutive days living in what is known as Priest's Grotto, a "massive underground sanctuary," in the Ukraine during World War II, Brian Handwerk reported for National Geographic News in 2004. No serious illnesses or deaths occurred during that time, despite the cave dwellers' having "no special experience or equipment," Handwerk wrote.

Shulim Stermer, 84, recounted his experience from his home in Montreal in 2004. "The Germans took half the town to a concentration camp, and the rest had to go to a ghetto," he said. "That meant to the slaughter house." Rather than comply, his mother told Shulim's brother to find a place for the family to hide in the forest; he discovered the cave.

Bringing the Story to Light

The Stermer family's inspirational story might have stayed a secret if not for the efforts of Chris Nicola, a "veteran caver" who was part of a team that explored Priest's Grotto in 1993, according to the 2004 issue of National Geographic Adventure Magazine.

The discovery of "two partially intact stone walls and other signs of habitation" within the Grotto piqued his team's interest. Locals told the team about a group of Ukrainian Jews that had lived in the caves, but whether there were any survivors remained a mystery. Nicola devoted the next decade of his life to figuring out the full story, until he finally "located six of the cave survivors, most of them members of the extended Stermer family."

In an interview with National Geographic Adventure, Nicola explained what made the cave dwellers' story so special. "The chance of a Jewish person surviving at all [in western Ukraine] 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," Nicola is quoted as saying.

Nicola was also astounded by some of the artifacts found in the cave, particularly the millstone, which was too heavy for him to move. "Yet Nissel Stermer carried it on his back for three or four miles," Nicola explained. "That millstone was their life. They used it to grind grain to make bread, which was the main part of their diet."

The Secret of Priest's Grotto

Nicola's book, "The Secret of Priest's Grotto," written with Peter Lane Taylor, was named one of the Best Books for Young Readers in 2007. The book contains photo illustrations, and "interleaves an account of an expedition to the cave with the story of the families who hid there," according to Diana Lutz for Natural History Magazine. The book includes one of the most harrowing aspects of the story: "When Ukrainian peasants realized Jews were hiding in Priest's Grotto, they worked for days with picks and shovels to block the entrance. Only two former neighbors remained trusted friends."

Background: Ukrainian Jews

According to Elaine Sciolino in a 2007 article for The New York Times, the horrors of the Holocaust in Poland and Germany are more "visible" because of "the searing symbols of the extermination camps," but in Ukraine, such cruelties were "hidden away, first by the Nazis, then by the Soviets." Sciolino spoke with Thomas Eymond-Laritaz from the Victor Pinchuk Foundation, the biggest philanthropic organization in Ukraine. "There was nothing to see in Ukraine because people were shot to death with guns," Eymond-Laritaz said.

To raise awareness, French Catholic priest Patrick Desbois embarked on a journey through Ukrainian villages, going door-to-door seeking those that witnessed the "1941 slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews in the Babi Yar ravine in Kiev." Video footage of interviews and various "wartime documents" gathered by Desbois over the course of four years were put on display at the Memorial of the Shoah in Paris in 2007, Sciolino reported.

Later Developments: Babi Yar today

In September, Kiev city officials approved a plan to build a hotel over the Babi Yar site, but reversed their decision after "facing withering criticism," according to The Associated Press. Jewish groups around the world "were bitter that a hotel was even suggested" for the site where more than 33,700 Jews were shot over two days in September 1941. According to the AP, the mass grave "was filled with an estimated 100,000 bodies" over the months that followed the initial massacre.

Reference: Learning about the Holocaust; The Stermer family

FindingDulcinea provides a comprehensive educational resource on the Holocaust, including a timeline of key events, profiles of inspiring people from the Holocaust and news stories depicting the legacy of the Holocaust. You'll also find Holocaust books and films of interest.

Ottawa Citizen devotes a full section to the Stermer family and their survival story in "Beyond Darkness." Look for video interviews with family members, a photo gallery documenting the family's dramatic story and background articles on the Holocaust.
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