Director: Janet Tobias
By Marilyn Ferdinand
With the vast coverage World War II and the Holocaust have gotten in every facet of cultural endeavor the world over—films, books, plays, television, even video games—the challenge for any artist working in the subject area is to bring something new to the table. Edward Zwick had a chance to tell us a story of Jewish courage and survival with his 2008 feature Defiance, but his rendering of the relatively unknown story of the Bielski partisans of Belorussia is just another generic action flick. Documentarians have fared much better in finding unfamiliar subject matter and making the specific universal. Gordon Quinn’s Prisoner of Her Past (2010) looked at a case of late-onset posttraumatic stress disorder in a Jewish woman living in my town of Skokie and related it to the problems survivors of such disasters as Hurricane Katrina could face down the road.
Now we have No Place on Earth. Using talking-head interviews and lengthy reenactments, Janet Tobias brings us the story of three families, the Stermers, the Wexlers, and the Dodyks, who hid from the Nazis and Christian Ukrainians during the war. While we learn fairly early that this is a tale of survival, the events unfold for the audience with a glimmer of the dread, confusion, and triumph of those who lived it. The curiosity we share with the real-life detective of the story, Chris Nicola, turns into a strongly suspenseful narrative worthy of anything Alfred Hitchcock might have concocted, and made all the more interesting for being a true tale of life and death.
This story might never have come to light, however, had it not been for Nicola, a New Yorker of Ukrainian descent with a passion for caving. Nicola combined a trip to his ancestral country to trace his family roots with the exploration of Verteba, a rare gypsum cave. When he came across some human artifacts in the cave, he started asking around about the how the caves might have been used in the past. All he could glean was that some Jews hid there during World War II. Years of inquiries yielded nothing more until a message came through his website from a relative of one of the survivors. Verteba had sheltered more than 30 Jews until they were discovered by German troops. Those who escaped capture moved to a second cave, Priest’s Grotto, where they remained until the defeat of Germany. In all, they spent more than 500 days underground; several of the men left at night to gather food and fire wood, but the women and children never came to the surface at all.
It is a cliché to say that World War II represented a dark time in human history. No Place on Earth examines that notion quite literally. Cave guides will tell you that human eyes cannot adjust to the complete absence of light. Think about that. No light at all for days and weeks on end, no images of any kind to focus on. Of course, the survivors had candles and lamps, but they had to be rationed; it was better to sleep 20 hours a day to escape the darkness, hunger, and monotony than risk replenishing the sources of light. The Jews had a handful of friends in their village, but they were betrayed on more than one occasion, once by a man who discovered their location and whose life they spared. That betrayal cost two lives when the Germans raided Verteba. Living in the part of the world outside of Germany that was most hostile to Jews, these families only wanted to live and let live. They even spared a horse that could have provided them with meat for weeks.
No Place on Earth, with its paradoxical poster image, takes literal darkness and makes it light, that is, safe, as Sima Dodyk says. Sima was a little girl when she fled with her family underground. At first, it was fun to explore the caves and dream up a pretend world of adventure. As the stay became more prolonged, the tension of the adults more extreme, and the gnawing hunger more persistent, the novelty of living in the cave wore off. When the Germans came and rounded up several of their number, the consequences became all too real. It is only in this context that one can understand how total darkness can represent the safety Sima says it was for all of them.
I saw this film at the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie, where Tobias and several of the survivors were present to make statements and answer questions. Sonia Dodyk (above left) believes they survived because they decided from the beginning to stick together. Yet we know that the Frank and the van Pels families stuck together in an Amsterdam attic and did not escape their fate. Nonetheless, there is something to Sonia’s assertion that by sticking together, they found the means to survive by using their collective intelligence and labor to keep mind and body together for the duration.
If there is a hero to this story, it is Nissel Stermer, whom both Saul and Sam Stermer looked up to and followed during their raids aboveground for food and fuel. The Stermer brothers stole a grindstone and were able to grind wheat into flour to bake bread in the cave. When needed, Nissel later bribed the right people to get bags of flour; when the bags proved too heavy to carry, he worked with his brother Saul to fashion a sleigh and stole a horse to pull it to the opening of Priest’s Cave. The ingenuity and foresight Nissel had saved many a life, including Hannah Stermer, who chose to remain aboveground and who escaped the police because Nissel knew her hiding place would be uncovered.
What I found so remarkable about the film was watching the reenactments and seeing how handy people used to be. They knew how to soak and bend wood to form the runners of a sleigh, carve and use a grindstone, dig a “back door” to the caves to help them escape if they were raided, collect water from the dripping ceilings of the cave and make bed frames and ovens. Reduced to living as our prehistoric ancestors did, they brought their 20th century knowledge to bear on making the caves more liveable and thereby holding onto their humanity.
Perhaps it was could be seen as a triumph that several of the survivors were able to return to their village and visit the caves again. Their happiness in being able to thank the caves was leavened by their sadness at all the families they used to know vanished from the village and the future. The surviving families were quick to leave the Ukraine as well, where anti-Semitism never seems to go out of style. They settled in the United States, Canada, and Israel, and told the story of the caves to their burgeoning families. Now we know it, too.