Esther Stermer knew the future was bleak for the Jews of Korolowka in western Ukraine, and entrance into the ghetto would be just a stop on the way to the Belzec concentration camp. "She read multiple newspapers in multiple languages before the war," Janet Tobias, director of No Place on Earth, tells Iconic Interview. "When, frankly, no one else in that town did, [Esther] said, 'It's not going to be okay, and I'm not going to let the people I love do the expected thing.'"
The stoic matriarch forbade her family from signing in to the walled city and sent her son Nissel into the woods to find a hiding place. He decided on a tourist cave called Verteba, a few miles north, and in October 1942 several dozen Jews fled their homes to seek safety underground. It was a cold night after the harvest, "so people wouldn't be in the fields," Tobias explains, "and then they started moving back in that first cave because they understood that people knew where it was and they needed to be back in unexplored areas." They survived there for nearly half a year until the Gestapo found them. Most escaped through a secret exit that the reluctant yet now-expert cavers had had the forethought to locate, widen and lock down months earlier.
They hid on the outskirts of the villages, but Esther knew they wouldn't last if they didn't find a new "bunker." Tasked again by his mother, Nissel sought help from a local woodsman, who directed him to a sinkhole he had once seen a fox run into. "The assumption," says Tobias, "was it was a small cavern where maybe a small group of people could hide -- and they happened to discover what is the 14th longest cave in the world. Seventy-seven miles long." The cave is now known as Priest's Grotto, and it was there that the Stermers, the Dodyks, the Wexlers and others -- 38 men, women and children in all -- lived for almost a year, until the war's end.
Along with renowned cinematographer César Charlone (The Constant Gardener, City of God), Tobias steeps audiences in this story of darkness, family, survival and triumph. No Place on Earth is a mix of documentary and scripted filmmaking, including dramatic reenactments alongside interviews with Nissel's younger brothers Saul and Sam Stermer, sisters Sonia and Sima Dodyk, and Chris Nicola, the cave enthusiast who first brought the story to light. Before putting the family members on camera, however, Tobias went with them to the Ukraine to revisit the town, and the caves that had saved them. As the director explains, she found the heart of the story "when Saul and Sam were in the first cave, and Saul said, 'Turn out the light. Sam, if we turn out the lights, you're going to see exactly where we are.' In a moment, emotionally, he made it real, because he felt safe, and recognized home in the dark, which was such a stunning moment for all of us when that happened. I think that crystallized it. In the end, nature was their friend, and human nature that wasn't close to them was what you were afraid of."
Another moment in the film that is especially affecting is the family's celebration of Yom Kippur in the bowels of the earth. There is a beauty to the prayers as well as a pointed irony in the idea of fasting while already living in such a state of denial and scarcity. When asked about the role of faith in their ability to survive, Tobias replies, "As a group, they were singled out for annihilation for their culture and their history and their religion and their ethnicity. So the celebration of who they were as Jews was essentially beating Hitler, and saying, we are these people, and as a community, that is who we are, and we will share that experience together. So I think faith, for them, had a lot of levels to it, which was a lot about community and history and belief in that community and history." She concludes with a laugh, "'But not hard to fast!' as Saul would say."
Lighthearted moments are not out of line -- and are, in fact, necessary -- in the telling of this extraordinary story. The survivors' fundamental challenge was "to do great things under unimaginable conditions," Tobias suggests, "and not have it destroy their souls. One of the things I love about the Stermers is that they laugh, at moments, telling this. Saul is such a joyous person. And to come through this, knowing that you can fight back, and have a nervous breakdown, and still get up and triumph, is to know what real courage is. Because it's not about not being afraid; it's about finding the connection with those closest to you, so that you can do things that you didn't think you could do."
Tobias is especially pleased that No Place on Earth has brought good feelings to those who actually lived it. "[Saul is] so proud that his family understands," she relates, "in a mud-under-your-fingers way, what they accomplished, and that the wider world can see."
"We are in the last few remaining years of eyewitnesses," she adds, "of people who can say, '[It] happened to me.' Ten or fifteen years from now, there will be no one. There will be no one left who can say that."