Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, one has to dig pretty deep to find a unique Holocaust story for the big screen.
So it’s not surprising that one of the latest Holocaust films has its genesis in a 77-mile gypsum cave in Ukraine, one of the longest such caves in the world.
This was home to 38 Jews who survived the Holocaust by living in this cave and another nearby for 511 days, until Russia liberated the area. Their story, discovered by a cave explorer from New York, captured the attention of director Janet Tobias. She was drawn as much by the Jews’ tale of survival as the courageous actions of a few locals who helped protect them, thus almost certainly saving their lives.
“I think genocide always seems like a gigantic number – 800,000 in Rwanda, 6.6 million Jews in Europe,” she says in a phone interview. “That stops when a woodcutter gives them information, a man in the village who was Ukrainian helps them figure out how to buy grain…. It stops one person at a time in small ways and that is incredibly applicable to the modern world.”
The tale of how 38 people, including a number of young children, survived underground with limited supplies is extraordinary in itself. But the genesis of the film is also remarkable.
It began in 1993 when cave explorer Chris Nicola of New York found buttons, girls shoes, and other modern artifacts in the recesses of the cave. He asked locals repeatedly for information, but got few answers. Communism had only recently ended and Jewish history was simply not discussed under communist rule, he says. In addition, many of those living there were the product of Stalin’s mass resettlement schemes and thus were unfamiliar with local history dating back to World War II.
Finally, after years of visiting the cave annually or even twice a year, he got a lead. A senior Ukrainian caver shoved a letter in his hand as he was boarding the train to head back to the US, telling him that several years ago, at a memorial ceremony for local Jews who had been killed in the Holocaust, he had met three siblings who said their family survived in a cave. But before the Ukrainian caver had been able to get their contact information, they heard the Soviet Union had dissolved and they left earlier than expected.
“When they heard that communism collapsed in Moscow, they remembered what it was like the last time to live without a structured government, and they got outta there, so I lost that lead,” recounts Mr. Nicola.
A keyword connection
Ultimately, Nicola had the idea to embed keywords on his website that might attract Jews searching for genealogical history of their families, in the hopes that one might be from the family of cave dwellers.
Sure enough, a son-in-law of the survivors emailed Nicola and he arranged to meet the senior patriarch of the family for lunch in West Palm Beach, Fla., several months later. But on the morning of their appointment, the patriarch got wind that Nicola wanted to make a film and backed out.
It took another couple of months of patient waiting, and a letter laying out his objectives, before the interview was secured.
In the end, four survivors shared their stories freely – appearing first in a book coauthored by Nicola and Peter Lane Taylor and later in Ms. Tobias’s film. They also participated in a filmed visit back to the site of the cave in Ukraine, along with several grandchildren.
The family matriarch, Esther Stermer, had written a memoir in 1975 so that her grandchildren would know what the family had been through. But despite this, most of the survivors had been very quiet about their experiences and generally spoke of it only among themselves – making it all the more remarkable that they were willing to share their stories with a global audience.
“One thing Janet and Peter and I always kept in mind,” says Nicola, “is this was never our story but we’re ever indebted to them … to let us a tell a story that they couldn’t tell themselves.”