A small but compelling story, “No Place on Earth” excavates the lost tale of one Ukrainian family’s survival during the Holocaust, when they hid in a series of deep caves that would intimidate even veteran spelunkers.
Indeed, this documentary by Janet Tobias was inspired by the findings of one such caver, a New Yorker named Chris Nicola, who works as an investigator for the state of New York. He visited Ukraine after the fall of the Berlin Wall, hoping to get some hints about his own family tree, as well as exploring an astonishing system of caves in western Ukraine.
While climbing around far underground, he came across artifacts that were obviously not only human but relatively recent – i.e., from the 20th Century. So he began to try to track down their origins.
At which point Tobias shifts her focus to the story of those objects and the survival of the Stermer family to whom they belonged. The Stermers were Jews who saw which way the winds were blowing in the early 1940s and, unable to escape the country after the Nazi invasion, hid within it. Led by the clan’s matriarch, Esther Stermer, who wrote a memoir of the experience, “We Fight to Survive,” they fled their village and found a cave in the woods in which they could hide.
But they were discovered – and some of them were arrested. Yet most of those were able to buy their way out of the Ukrainian police’s custody. Seeking a new hiding place, they discovered an even deeper set of caves, where they holed up for more than 400 days.
As Nicola tells the camera, even experienced cavers would be intimidated by the deep, dark and dangerous caverns in which 38 people lived. Indeed, he says, most cavers wouldn’t spend more than a few hours – let alone months on end – living in the dark, illuminated by candles, drinking the water in underground pools, eating what food they could scavenge in after-dark forays into their own village.
Tobias has several of the survivors to recount the experience, some of them in their 80s and 90s. They are lively storytellers, with great memory for details and incidents. Some were teens when this occurred, some even younger. But all recall it with a passion for keeping the story – and the horrors of that period – alive and in the public eye, lest we forget too quickly just what atrocities were visited upon Europe by the Germans and their collaborators.
Then she takes these survivors back to the village itself and down into the caves. Some are too old to make the strenuous climb, even with mechanical assistance; none, however, are too old to remember what they went through – and what they lost (and found) in the caves and their aboveground environs.
A blend of archival footage and recreations of the cave and these people in their younger days, “No Place on Earth” is both a reminder of a horrifying period in history and a primer on the resilience and determination of which human beings are capable. It is one family’s story but carries that universal nugget that ties us all together.
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