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.
It tells the harrowing account of how 38 Jews survived the horrors of the Holocaust in western Ukraine during World War II. I say miraculously not only because they somehow managed to stay alive for 511 days underground in an extensive cave, but also for the reason that the chance of a Jewish person surviving in that region was less than five percent.
The Stermers’ story delivers an entirely new point of view of the Holocaust and its survivors, with no real focus on the death camps that claimed so many lives. There may have been few safe havens for them to turn to above ground–but beneath the surface of the Earth, they found refuge.
In October 1942, Nazis began occupying eastern Europe and systematically exterminating Jewish families.
Survivor Shulim Stermer tells National Geographic how his family discovered Verteba, their first hiding place, and evaded Hitler’s troops:
The Germans took half the town [Korolówka, Ukraine] to a concentration camp, and the rest had to go to a ghetto. That meant to the slaughter house. My mother decided, we’re not going there. She told my brother, ‘Go to the forest, find some place for us.’ My brother found the cave.
They spent six months taking cover in Verteba, a cave that was a popular tourist destination, with other families, including Solomon Wexler’s, before being discovered by the Gestapo on May 5, 1943.
“The darkness, you know, that first day I would say it was the lowest point of my life,” Shlomo Stermer revealed. “There was no place else to go. That was our last stop and it was very depressing.”
Although they faced hardships trying to survive in the cave, such as not having enough water, the real threat were the Nazis. While some of them managed to disappear into the darkness to avoid capture, Wexler’s mother and nine-year-old brother were apprehended and later executed.
After escaping imminent death, the families were forced to relocate to the only other place available–another cave that was unexplored. It was called Priest’s Grotto. This is where they would stay for the next 344 days. It’s important to keep in mind that these were people that had absolutely zero caving experience or the proper equipment to endure such a harsh environment.
At one point hostile villagers even tried sealing the entrance to the cave with dirt, hoping they would all die inside from starvation.
However, they had one another and an unyielding will to survive.
When the Germans withdrew, a note in a bottle was dropped down by Soviet troops into the rabbit hole that led to the labyrinth of passageways, and they celebrated with sheer joy. In the end, all 38 people walked away from that cave alive. It was a happy ending, one that was almost forgotten with time.
As you can imagine, when they finally surfaced from the dark, they were unsure if they’d ever have to retreat back inside and so they told no one about their hiding place. But even when they were prepared to disclose their unbelievable story, nobody ever believed a word they said.
Their story remained buried for some 50 years, until veteran caver Chris Nicola stumbled upon artifacts left behind in their living quarters in 1993. Nicola was one of the first Americans to explore Ukraine’s Gypsum Giant cave systems. What he found propelled him on a 10-year investigative journey that would forever change his life.
He located the surviving members of the Stermer family who lived through these unthinkable circumstances, and finally brought their story to life.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Stermers’ incredible tale, you should watch the documentary No Place on Earth, which is available on Netflix. It’s one that is truly remarkable and mind-boggling.