Monday, April 15, 2013

The Secret of Priest’s Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story by Peter Lane Taylor and Christos Nicola 2007

"[T]his is a unique and absorbing addition to the library of Holocaust testimonials written for younger readers." from a review in Kirkus Reviews, 4/1/2007.

This large format book, with material interesting to adults as well  as older children, is a compilation of narrative and photos written by two “cavers.”  In exploring extensive underground caves in the vicinity of Korolowka, Ukraine, part of what are called the Gypsum Giant cave system, they heard from local Ukrainians that Jewish families had survived in the section of a caves called Popowa Yama during World War II. At a length of 77 miles, it is the ninth longest cave in the world.
It took a number of years and a number of trips into the caves, searching for and interviewing Ukrainians who could tell them more, and searching for and interviewing the Jewish survivors, many now living in Montreal, to get a fuller picture of the life lived by 38 Jews. They were mostly members of a large extended family who lived underground for the better part of a year. The writers of this volume also relied on the privately printed memoir of the matriarch, Esther Stermer, who, in 1960, wrote "We Fight To Survive" about their experience.
It is common knowledge, of course, that many Jews went into hiding during the war – in attics, in barns, in holes in the ground. But this instance of hiding was quite remarkable. Thirty-eight people lived as best they could in an underground cave as a community, carving out living space, assigning chores, sustaining each other through the deprivation: darkness, cold and limited food, as best they could. We learn about the heroic efforts of some of the men who went out under cover of darkness to buy supplies from a few trusted Ukranians and to “appropriate” food from the fields. One son of Esther Stermer carried a 150 pound millstone back to the cave on his back so that they could grind wheat into flour.
This book uses short excerpts from the memoir as well as many photos of the family from their early lives until today as well as maps of the area and of the section of the caves where they hid. It also has photos of the contemporary cavers exploring the caves and photos of the objects that they found in the caves that had been left behind by the hiding family members, including the millstone.
 An afterword explains that Peter Lane Taylor published an article about exploring these caves and his interviews with the surviors in the June 2004 issue of National Geographic Adventure which generated a lot of interest in the press. In August of 2006 Nicola escorted some of the survivors and descendants of some of the survivors back to the cave and is spearheading an effort to preserve the caves for their historic value. A documentary entitled  “No Place on Earth” which contains interviews with survivors as well as re-enactments was released in April of 2013.

To see a segment on the Today show generated by the interest in the original article published in the National Geographic Adventure magazine, click here.
To see a trailer for the film "No Place on Earth" click here.
 Zeida and Esther Stermer
             Chana Stermer – married Joseph Richter
             Henia Stermer – married to Fishel Dodyk
                         Shunkale Hochman – daughter of Henia and Fishel
                         Pepkale Stermer – daughter of Henia and Fishel
 Shulim – married Czarna
                                    Erin Grunstein – granddaughter of Shlomo  
             Shlomo – married Bella
                         Lila – daughter of Shlomo and Bella             
             Etka Stermer – married Abe Katz
 Choncia Dodyk
             Mendel Dodyk – son of Choncia; married to Yetta
                         Regina Dodyk – daughter of Mendel and Yetta
             Fradel Dodyk – daughter of Choncia
             Yossel Dodyk – son of Choncia; married to Pepcia
                         Nunia Dodyk – son of Yossel and Pepcia (adopted after parents’ death and became Norman Kittner
             Meimel Reibel – daughter of Choncia
                         Mania Reibel – daughter of Meimel
 Dortcia (Dorothy) Karpf – daughter of Mania
  Mundek (Marvin) and Luzer (Louis) Reibel; sons of Meimel
             Etcia Goldberg – daughter of Choncia
                         Mania (Mariya) Gritsiv – daughter of Etcia
  Dunia (Daniel) and Marek Goldberg – sons of Etcia
 Ulo and Frida Barad – siblings; nephew and niece of Yetta Dodyk (see above)
Mayer and Hersch Kavelek – cousins of Fishel Dodyk (see above); exact relationship unclear
Siomo and Karl (Ziundi) Kurz – nephews of Esther Sturmer; exact relationship unclear
Leiche Wexler – sister of Esther Stermer; married to Munie Wexler
            Sol Wexler - son of Leiche and Munie 
                 Ed Vogel - son-in-law of Sol
            Lonchia Wexler – daughter of Leiche and Munie
Shimon Kittner
Leib Kittner – brother of Shimon
            Shunia Kittner – son of Leib
Usher Metzger
Shancie Kimelman – sister of Esther Stermer
Popowa Yama (Priest’s Grotto) , Ukraine
Verteba Caves, Ukraine
Korolowka, Ukraine
Bilche-Zolote, Ukraine
Myshcoff, Poland
Montreal, Canada

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