Off the Face of the Earth
The remarkable story of a group of Holocaust survivors who hid in one of the world's largest caves.
The night of October 12, 1942, when the Stermers finally ran for good, was moonless and unseasonably cold. The roads in and out of the town of Korolowka, deep in the farm country of western Ukraine, were empty of the cart traffic that had peaked during the fall harvest days. After a month of backbreaking work, most residents had already drifted off to sleep.
Zaida Stermer, his wife, Esther, and their six children dug up their last remaining possessions from behind their house, loaded their wagons with food and fuel, and, just before midnight, quietly fled into the darkness. Traveling with them were nearly two dozen neighbors and relatives, all fellow Jews who, like the Stermers, had so far survived a year under the German occupation of their homeland. Their destination, a large cave about five miles to the north, was their last hope of finding refuge from the Nazis’ intensifying roundups and mass executions of Ukrainian Jews.
The dirt track they rode on ended by a shallow sinkhole, where the Stermers and their neighbors unloaded their carts, descended the slope, and squeezed through the cave’s narrow entrance. In their first hours underground, the darkness around them must have seemed limitless. Navigating with only candles and lanterns, they would have had little depth perception and been able to see no more than a few feet. They made their way to a natural alcove not far from the entrance and huddled in the darkness. As the Stermers and the other families settled in for that first night beneath the cold, damp earth, there was little in their past to suggest that they were prepared for the ordeal ahead.
At the surface, Priest’s Grotto is little more than a weedy hole in the ground amid the endless wheat fields stretching across western Ukraine. A short distance away, a low stand of hardwoods withers in the heat and is the only sign of cover for miles around. With the exception of a shallow, 90-foot-wide depression in the flat ground, there’s nothing to indicate that one of the longest horizontal labyrinths in the world lies just underfoot.
On the afternoon of July 18, 2003, I am standing with Chris Nicola, a leading American caver, at the bottom of the sinkhole, sorting our gear. It has taken us four days, traveling by jet, train, and finally ox cart, to get here from New York City. Our guides, 46-year-old Sergey Yepephanov and 24-year-old Sasha Zimels, are standing next to the rusting three-foot-wide metal entrance pipe that leads underground.
I’ve come here to explore Priest’s Grotto for the first time. For Nicola, a 20-year veteran of major cave systems in the U.S. and Mexico, our expedition is the culmination of a journey that began in 1993, soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, when he became one of the first Americans to explore Ukraine’s famous Gypsum Giant cave systems. His last excursion was here, to the cave known locally as Popowa Yama, or Priest’s Grotto, because of its location on land once owned by a parish priest.
At 77 miles, Priest’s Grotto ranks as the tenth longest cave in the world.
At 77 miles, Priest’s Grotto is the second longest of the Gypsum Giants and currently ranks as the tenth longest cave in the world. Yet what Nicola found fascinating about the cave was located just minutes inside the entrance: Soon after they’d set out, his group passed two partially intact stone walls and other signs of habitation including several old shoes, buttons, and a hand-chiseled millstone. Nicola’s guides from the local caving association told him the campsite had already been there when their group first explored that portion of the cave in the early 1960’s.
“My guides called the site Khatki, or ‘cottage,’” Nicola, now 53, recalls. “They told me that it was settled by a group of local Jews who had fled to the cave during the Holocaust. But that’s where the story ended. No one else could remember what had actually happened there or even if the Jews had survived the war at all.”
Intrigued, Nicola began asking questions in the nearby towns. Western Ukraine is a region where the Gypsum Giants have long been revered as national landmarks and where uncomfortable memories of the Holocaust still linger. Some local villagers told him that, after the Russian troops pushed back the Germans in 1944, the survivors were seen stumbling back to town, covered in thick, yellow mud. Others said the Jews never saw daylight again.
On a later trip, Nicola learned more. “Rumors kept developing that at least three families did survive,” he says. But how had they lived in such an inhospitable environment, Nicola wondered, and where were they today? As a caver, he was awed by the courage and resourcefulness that such long-term survival underground must have demanded. And he was amazed that the story wasn’t better known, even among Holocaust experts.
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.”
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.
“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.”
"‘Go to the forest, find a hole, anything.’ Thanks to him, we survived.”
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.
After Chris Nicola met that first Priest’s Grotto survivor, Solomon Wexler, in the Bronx, Wexler had introduced him to his Canadian cousins and fellow survivors, the Stermers. Throughout 2003, Chris and I made five trips to Montreal to interview the Stermer family. Over the course of several long conversations we learned that the facts of their story were even more extraordinary than the rumors. The Stermers and several other families had escaped the Holocaust by living in two separate caves for close to two years. The first was a tourist cave known as Verteba. Only later did their group -- which eventually swelled to 38 people -- discover and inhabit the then unexplored Priest’s Grotto, where they lived for 344 days. Though some of the survivors lost touch with each other in the years after the war, the Stermers, their in-laws the Dodyks, and Sol Wexler remained close. In all, we were able to make contact with six living survivors: the two Stermer brothers (Shulim, 84, and Shlomo, 74); their sister, Yetta, 78; their cousin, Sol Wexler, 74; and their nieces Shunkale, 70, and Pepkale, 65.
Shulim Stermer’s ninth-floor apartment was spacious and airy, with high ceilings and eight-foot plate glass windows running the length of the western wall. Hung on one wall was a large, striking photography of the six Stermer children with their parents, Esther and Zaida, taken a few years before World War II. On the dining room table lay one of their most precious family treasures: a memoir of their survival, originally written in Yiddish by their mother, Esther, and then privately published in English in 1975.
“My mother never trusted authority,” Shulim told us. “The Germans, the Russians, the Ukrainians. It didn’t matter. She taught us early on that no matter who it was, if they told you to do one thing, you always did the opposite. If the Germans said, ‘Go to the ghettos, you’ll be safe there,’ you went to the forest or the mountains. You went as far away from the ghettos as you could go.”
In the early 1930’s, Esther Stermer was the proud matriarch of one of the most well-regarded families in Korolowka. Her husband was a successful merchant. It was a rare time of opportunity for many Jews in Western Ukraine; Jewish cultural life and Zionist and socialist movements were thriving.
But with the rise of Nazi power in Germany, and increasing anti-Semitic violence at home, all that soon came to an end. In 1939 the Germans seized Czechoslovakia and then invaded Poland. Threatened by Hitler’s eastward advance, the Russians countered by invading western -- or Polish -- Ukraine. For a short time, a cynical non-aggression pact between the Germans and the Russians kept the region quiet even as the rest of Europe erupted in war. That shaky peace collapsed in June 1941, when Hitler’s armies stormed the border from Poland and rolled across Ukraine’s open plains toward Stalingrad and the oil fields of the Caspian Sea. Almost immediately, German Einsatzgruppen paramilitary units began roaming the country, executing Jews and others at will.
The Stermers’ town of Korolowka was officially declared judenfrei -- “free of Jews” -- in the summer of 1942, and the Germans stepped up their efforts to eliminate the Jewish population. During the holiday of Sukkot, the Gestapo encircled the town, forced the Jews to dig mass graves, and executed them dozens at a time. Though the Stermers and a few other families managed to escape, their fate seemed inevitable. No Jew would get out alive.
“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.”
The true record for surviving underground was set by the women and children of Priest’s Grotto, who never ventured out of the cave during their entire 344-day ordeal.
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? That was the question our expedition had come some 7,000 miles to answer.
The Stermers’ first underground home, the tourist cave of Verteba, was a temporary refuge at best. At worst, it was a death trap. The cave had poor ventilation and no dependable water source. And the families would almost certainly be discovered when the snows melted in April and the local peasants (many of whom had welcomed the invading Germans) returned to their fields near the mouth of the cave.
“Our situation at that time was really, really bad,” recalled Shlomo Stermer, the younger brother. “We didn’t have any water, and we had to catch the drips that came off the walls in cups. We also couldn’t cook inside without choking on the smoke. We had no idea how we were going to survive.”
Much of the heavy labor fell to the Stermer men: the father, Shabsy – whom everyone called Zaida, or Grandpa – and his three sons, Nissel, age 25, Shulim, 22, and Shlomo, 13. Esther Stermer and her adult daughters Chana and Henia took charge of domestic chores with the help of Yetta, 17, the family’s youngest girl.
Before fleeing with their families to the cave, Zaida, Nissel, and Henia’s husband, Fishel Dodky, had received special permission to collect scrap metal under official protection from the local police. It was perilous, humiliating labor. But their ability to return to their houses, move freely in public, and buy supplies on the black market represented their families’ only lifeline. Week after week, they drove their wagons to the cave under cover of darkness through the deep snow. At the edge of the sinkhole, they descended the icy slopes carrying hundred-pound sacks of flour, potatoes, kerosene, and water on their backs, and then dragged them through the mud inside the cave. Through the winter of 1942-43, the families’ survival hung in a precarious balance between the secrecy of their location and the security of their supply lines. The men warned their families that the Germans were intensifying their hunt for Jews, and in February 1943 the group decided to move even deeper into the cave. They sealed themselves in a low, sickle-shaped room more than a thousand feet from daylight and began to search for a second, secret exit in case the Gestapo attempted to blockade them inside. The Stermer brothers discovered a small fracture in the ceiling of a nearby passage and feverishly began digging with picks and axes. Day after day, the men tunneled upward, finally breaking through to the surface after four weeks. It was the first time many of them had seen the sky in months.
Before returning underground, Shulim concealed their exit with earth and logs and suspended a long chain down to the cave’s floor below. If the Nazis discovered their refuge, his family could escape by climbing up the chain using small kick steps in the walls for support. After roughly 150 days of living in perpetual terror of being discovered, the Stermers and their neighbors finally began to feel they might have a chance of surviving.
Four weeks later, the Jews’ optimism was shattered by the sound of bootsteps and rattling guns. “The Germans are here!” someone suddenly yelled in Yiddish. “They’ve discovered us!”
“The Germans are here!” someone suddenly yelled in Yiddish. “They’ve discovered us!”
Young Shlomo was sleeping closest to the entrance of the chamber and was caught helpless before he had the chance to run. In the glare of the Gestapo’s flashlights he could see that others had been captured, too. At the entrance to their refuge, Shlomo’s mother, Esther, was standing toe-to-toe with the Gestapo’s commanding officer. Shlomo could hear her speaking in German.
“Very well, so you have found us. What do you think?” Esther said. “Do you think that unless you kill us the Fuhrer will lose the war? Look at how we live here, like rats. All we want is to live, to survive the war years. Leave us here.”
Sixty years later, Shlomo rose out of his chair to imitate his mother as he quoted her. “I couldn’t believe what I was hearing!” he continued. “Here was my mother, in the middle of the war, standing up to the Germans!”
As Esther confronted the soldiers, stalling for time, the rest of her children and the other survivors slipped away into the dark maze of passageways branching off from the campsite. In the end, the Germans managed to seize just eight of the Jews and began to march them back to the cave’s entrance at gunpoint. Miraculously, six of the prisoners, including Esther, were able to escape and eventually return to their families. But Sol Wexler would soon learn that his mother and nine-year-old brother had been forced into an open grave and shot.
For those who remained inside the cave, the next three hours were spent in a state of terror and confusion. Few of the survivors had kept track of how far they had fled in the dark, and many ended up out of earshot of one another, lost without matches, candles, water, or any idea of how to find their way back to camp.
For the middle son, Shulim, in particular, the shock of being discovered was cataclysmic. When Esther finally found her way back to the encampment, she was horrified to see her middle son lying paralyzed at the bottom of the exit shaft he had dug just weeks earlier.
“I saw that all had climbed through the exit except Shulim, who was sitting on the ground trembling, head thrown back,” she wrote. “I ran to him, spoke to him, but he did not reply. His eyes were glazed, his teeth clenched and he was drooling at the mouth.”
Back in Montreal, Shulim grew quiet when we raised the topic of his breakdown.
“I had a complete shock. It was a miracle that I even survived.”
“I was almost destroyed in the first cave,” he finally offered. “I had a complete shock. I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t take a spoon and pick it up to my mouth. It was a miracle that I even survived.”
It was the worst possible time for Shulim to break down. No one else knew how to open the trap door at the top of the exit shaft. Shulim’s sister, Chana, and Sol Wexler were the first to reach the top, but they were unable to move the logs that locked the door in place. As the other survivors began to bottleneck near the surface, panic set in.
Finally, with one last effort, Sol and Chana succeeded in breaking through to the surface, and everyone rushed from the exit. Outside, the air was cold and wet, and many of the survivors began to shiver uncontrollably. To the north, they could see the Gestapo and their dogs running search grids around the sinkhole looking for a secret exit. Shulim was the last to leave, carried up the shaft on his brothers’ shoulders. Then the survivors slipped away through the grass and fled into the darkness.
Throughout the month of April 1943, the Jews lived like outlaws in their own community. The Stermers moved along the back roads at night between the boarded-up remains of their house in Korolowka and a hidden bunker in a barn.
Desperate to find a permanent refuge, the Stermers’ eldest son, Nissel, sought the counsel of his friend, Munko Lubudzin, a forester who lived in the woods near Korolowka. Though many Ukrainian Christians willingly participated in the Holocaust -- and the Ukrainian police actively collaborated with the Nazis -- Munko Lubudzin faithfully assisted the Stermers throughout the war. Munko told Nissel about a sinkhole a few miles outside of town, located in the fields of a local parish priest. At the surface, there was nothing remarkable about the place. Unlike at Verteba, there was little indication that the sinkhole might contain an entrance to a sizable cave. It was only a hole in the ground where farmers their dead livestock to rot.
Nissel knew there were several caves in the area that had a history of ancient human habitation. Based on this slim hope, Nissel and brother Shulim left Korolowka at first light on May 1, 1943, along with their friend, Karl Kurz, and two of the Dodyk brothers. The men raced through the fields north of town to the edge of the sinkhole. “When we came there, there was some nice, nice grass, like a golf course.” Shulim remembered, his voice rising excitedly. “And then you have a big ravine about 40 feet deep and water used to drip in.”
The men descended the loose dirt at the top using an open old rope, then clambered down the last 20 feet using logs as a makeshift ladder. At the bottom, the mud came up to their knees, and the stench of the rotting livestock made the men gag, but they could see a small opening, about the size of a fireplace. Nissel was the first to squeeze through. Inside, it was completely black, but by the dim light of their candles the men could see that they were in a small room surrounded by large boulders. “After that,” Shulim said, “the cave just kept on going.”
“The cave just kept on going.”
Seventy-five feet farther on, the men crawled into a chamber so large that their candles could scarcely light the walls or the ceiling overhead. After their six months in Verteba, they were now experienced cave explorers. They pulled out a coil of rope, tied one end to a bounder, and began searching the network of passages for a suitable place for camp. Three hours later, disoriented and fatigued, Shulim dragged his foot over a small ledge, dislodging a stone, which rolled downhill and splashed into a clear underground lake. The men laughed for the first time in months: They had found a water source.
“By the time we went into the second cave, I think there was truly no place else that we could go,” Pepkale said. “It was judenfrei. Any Jew who was seen anywhere could have been shot by anybody. It was just a godsend that they found this place.”
Four days later, on May 5, the Stermers, their in-laws the Dodyks, and various other relatives and friends packed up their last supplies and fled to Priest’s Grotto. The group now numbered 38 in all. The oldest was a 75-year-old grandmother; the youngest included Esther’s four-year-old granddaughter Pepkale and a toddler. They descended the sinkhole one by one in silence, climbing hand over hand down the rocky faces and stepping on the slippery wet logs for support. At the bottom, the complete darkness inside the narrow entrance was terrifying, and the youngest children started to cry as they crawled through the opening. It would be the last time many of them would see the sky for nearly a year.
For their new home, the survivors chose a series of four interconnected rooms far to the left of the cave’s main passageways. Compared with the world they had left above them, the initial security of their new refuge must have seemed like heaven. For the smallest children, Priest’s Grotto was the first taste of real freedom they had ever experienced. “We would sing and play in the grotto,” Pepkale recalled back in Montreal. “It was the only I had ever felt safe.”
“Long ago,” Esther wrote of their refuge, “people believed that spirits and ghosts lived in ruins and in caves. Now we could see that there were none here. The devils and the evil spirits were on the outside, not in the grotto.”
It wasn’t long, however, before the Jews’ initial relief was overshadowed by the question of how they were going to survive. Drawing on the lessons of Verteba, the families found a ventilated chamber for their cooking fire, isolated their water sources, and constructed beds of wooden planks. Reestablishing their supply lines was their next urgent priority. The men had lost their scrap-metal exemption, and there was only enough kerosene, flour, and other supplies to last two weeks.
The three Stermer brothers made their first foray out of the cave accompanied by several other men. At the top of the sinkhole they sprinted through the high grass to the edge of the woods a thousand feet away, where they crouched down and waited. Overhead, a thin crescent moon lay hidden behind a dark skin of low clouds, and the wind blew across the plains with a persistent moan. From behind the trees, Nissel scanned the horizon to see if anyone had seen them come out of the sinkhole. But the landscape was quiet, a few smoldering buildings the only signs of life.
On Nissel’s cue, the men scattered into the woods and began to dismember 20 large trees, working frantically with axes and saws in almost total darkness. Half the men chopped off the branches and cut the trunks into five-foot lengths, while the others carried the logs back to the cave across the open fields.
“This was terrible danger,” Shulim exclaimed. “You hear ...you listen. And you hear the cutting with the ax: ‘Pow! Boom! Bam!’ So much noise!” As he spoke, Shulim cut his hands through the air, a sense of defiance still lingering in his voice.
Their second covert mission took place a few days later. The men left the cave as a group and then split up at the edge of the sinkhole to secure food and other vital reserves for their own individual families. Nissel and Shulim sprinted west through the fields, staying near the trees for cover. It was a three-mile round-trip journey from Priest’s Grotto to their friend Munko Lubudzin’s house, where the brothers traded a few remaining valuables for cooking oil, detergent, matches and flour.
“When we got out, there was the Big Dipper,” Shulim told us when we asked how they kept time without watches. “The Big Dipper was like that” -- in the empty space in front of him, he circumscribed a wide arc with his arms across the table. “It was turning, turning, and when it was almost horizontal we knew it would soon be morning. We knew we had to get back.”
The next day, the men slept for 20 uninterrupted hours.
When Nissel, Shulim, and the other men finally returned to the cave, they whispered a password to one of the younger boys, posted just inside of the entrance, who quickly dislodged a large boulder to let them back in.
The next day, the men slept for 20 uninterrupted hours, while Esther and her daughters piled the Stermers’ rations neatly upon shelves they’d built under their wooden bunks. In all, the men had secured enough supplies for another six weeks.
As Shulim finished his story, Yetta turned to face him. She had been watching her older brother intently while he spoke. “We wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for them!” she finally burst out through a surge of tears. “Every time we needed something, they brought the flour and potatoes so I could make the soup.”
Shulim smiled at his sister.
“Yetta made the best soup in the world,” he said softly.
As summer 1943 arrived, World War II raged across Europe more fiercely than ever. Poland’s remaining ghettos were liquidated and Jewish resistance crushed. All the while, the Stermers and their neighbors lived in a state of near-hibernation under the fields of Ukraine. The combination of the cave’s naturally high humidity and the moisture from their own respiration kept their tattered clothes constantly damp; even the slightest breeze could induce hypothermia. They slept for up to 22 hours at a time, lying side by side on their plank beds and rising only to eat, relieve themselves, or attend to other rudiments of staying alive.
The combination of stress and sensory deprivation the Jews endured was almost without parallel.
Survival expert Kenneth Kamler, M.D., author of Surviving the Extremes, believes the combination of stress and sensory deprivation the Jews endured was almost without parallel. “Their experience was analogous to long-duration spaceflight. They had no day-night rhythm, and because of the lack of light, slept for extensive periods, but they could never relax.”
During their waking hours, the Stermers worked on improving their home, digging stairs and trenches to make walking easier. They limited their use of candles and lanterns to two or three brief periods each day, often working in complete darkness. The family obeyed a chain of command that began with Esther and extended down through her eldest sons with military precision. In explorer Ernest Shackleton’s account of his ship’s long imprisonment in the Antarctic sea ice, he stressed the importance of maintaining shipboard routines and adhering to a strict code of responsibilities. Esther’s memoir reveals a similar attitude toward discipline. “Inside our cave, each one of us did his assigned duties,” she writes. “We cooked, we washed, we made needed repairs. Cleanliness was of the utmost importance. Life in our grotto went on with its own normality.”
In early July, however, the survivors’ rising confidence was shattered by the sound of one of the Dodyk men screaming.
“The entrance to the cave is blocked!” he shouted, scrambling into Khatki. “We will die here of starvation!”
The other men jumped from their beds and crawled quickly to the entrance, discovering a wall of earth and boulders trapping them inside. From underground, it was impossible to know if some of the men had been spotted in the woods, or if a Gestapo patrol had followed their tracks to the entrance. Instead of storming the entrance, whoever it was had simply sealed them in.
The men found a narrow gap between two rocks a few feet from the blocked entrance and frantically started to dig for daylight. For the next three nights they tunneled upward, chiseling away at the stones at the loose fracture gradually turned toward the ceiling. On the fourth day, Nissel pried a large rock from the top of the shaft and felt the wind rush in from outside, carrying with it the warm, tangy aroma of a passing thunderstorm.
A group of Ukrainian villagers had blocked the entrance to the cave.
The survivors later learned that a group of Ukrainian villagers had worked with picks and shovels until they filled the ravine and blocked the entrance to the cave. “Some of the Ukrainians helped us to survive,” Shulim said simply. “But some of them were very bad.”
With their refuge no longer a secret, the Jews stood steady guard with sickles and axes at the bottom of the entrance shaft and listened constantly for the sound of strange voices. It was impossible to know whether the Nazis or local police were planning to ambush the cave or if they had given its inhabitants up for dead.
Nissel and Shulim ventured even deeper into the cave’s labyrinths, looking desperately for a breach where they could begin digging for a secret exit. By this time the two oldest brothers were finely attuned to the state of sensory deprivation underground. They could walk for hours without tracing their steps, recognizing each passageway merely by feel. It took two weeks to find a suitable spot, and more weeks to tunnel through layers of rock, gravel, and clay. As they reached the 50-foot mark, however, the shaft started to collapse, showering the men with rock and debris. After two serious cave-ins, they gave up for good.
Though exhausted from their failed effort, the Jews could no longer put off restocking their supplies for another long winter. The plains of Ukraine yield an unimaginable bounty every September and October. Yet the r