This is truly one of the most heart-wrenching stories you will ever hear in your lifetime. It’s also one of amazing bravery, survival, and the determination a group of people can have when they stick together.
The Holocaust showed the horrors humans can inflict on one another. Yet the resilience displayed by those who lived through the Nazis’ brutal reign shows the strength of the human spirit. Those who escaped the Holocaust did so through cunning, daring, and the sheer unwillingness to give in to the evil around them.
A Jewish matriarch was so determined to protect her family from Nazi persecution, she hid herself and them in an underground cave until their country was liberated – eighteen months later.
Esther Stermer lived a peaceful, rural existence in a small Ukrainian village with her six children until the Germans invaded in late 1941.
In October 1942, Nazis began occupying eastern Europe and systematically exterminating Jewish families.
Hellbent on annihilating the Jewish people, the soldiers rounded up more than a thousand Jews and sent them to their deaths.
But Mrs Stermer and her husband Zaida were determined that their innocent family would survive, whatever it took.
So, she and five other Jewish families from the area packed up their belongings one cold October night in 1942 and fled, in the dark, to a sinkhole masking the entrance to an underground cave, five miles north of their home in Korolowka.
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.
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.
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.
Nicola was exploring Priest’s Grotto, the world’s 10th-longest cave at 124 kilometers (77 mi) long. The humidity is 90 percent there, and the temperature hovers around 10 degrees Celsius (50 °F). This was supposed to be a largely untouched spot, but Nicola noticed shoes, buttons, and other signs that people had lived there. Locals said that the items had been there for decades.
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 email 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.”
Shulim Stermer leaned forward across the dining room table as he spoke, his eyes side through heavy prescription glasses. His brother Shlomo, their sister Yetta Katz, and his niece Pepkale Blitzer sat respectfully on either side of him, surrounded by Shulim and Shlomo’s wives and several children and grandchildren. At 84, Shulim is the oldest living survivor from Priest’s Grotto.
Seven months later we are standing outside the cave itself. Our two dozen duffels contain over 200 pounds of photographic and survey gear and enough supplies to remain underground for three days.
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.
“Death stalked each step,” Esther wrote of that autumn. “But we were not surrendering to this fate…. Our family in particular would not let the Germans have their way easily. We had vigor, ingenuity, and determination to survive…. But where can we survive? Clearly, there was no place on Earth for us.”
“My mother always said, ‘We are not going to the slaughterhouse.’ She said to my brother, Nissel, ‘Go to the forest, find a hole, anything.’ Thanks to him, we survived.”
Mr Stermer’s older brother Saul Stermer, now 92, said: ‘You went to sleep and you had a pillow and you covered up with good blankets – what else you want?’
The longest period of time a human is recorded to have survived underground is 205 days. The record was set in Texas’ Midnight Cave in 1972 by Frenchman Michel Siffre, as part of a NASA-sponsored experiment studying the effects of long-duration space-flight. Yet, in listening to the survivors, Chris Nicola and I had realized that the true record was set by the women and children of Priest’s Grotto, who never ventured out of the cave during their entire 344-day ordeal.
Modern cavers require special clothing to ward off hypothermia, advanced technology for lighting and travel, and intensive instruction in ropes and navigation to survive underground for just a few days. How did 38 untrained, ill-equipped people survive for so long in such a hostile environment during history’s darkest era?
Today the survivors and offspring of those who hid in the Ukrainian caves number more than 125.