News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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November 5, 2013

CANDLES to show new film on unknown Holocaust survival

TERRE HAUTE — A remarkable and little known story of survival in the darkest days of the Holocaust will unfold Friday night at the CANDLES Holocaust Museum in Terre Haute.

The museum will be showing “No Place on Earth,” a new 88-minute film about 38 Ukrainian Jews who survived the Holocaust by living in underground caves for nearly a year in German-occupied Soviet territory.

The film, to be shown at 5:30 p.m., is the first of its kind telling the story of the Stermer family and their relatives that survived Nazi occupation by hiding underground for 344 days.

Rick Hirschhaut, executive director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, who will attend the CANDLES screening, visited the cave in 2010. He saw, first hand, the place the families used as a safe haven until 1944 when Soviet forces pushed the Germans back to the west.

“It’s a wheat field as far as the eye can see,” Hirschhaut said of the area in which the cave is located. A small depression in the field indicates the entrance to the cave. A steel ladder takes the modern visitor down one level. Another ladder leads to yet another level. Then a very narrow, winding entry way leads to the place the family called home for a year, he said. In total, the cave stretches more than 70 miles in length.

Only a few younger male members of the family ever ventured outside at night to find firewood and to steal rations for survival. None of the family saw sunlight until their liberation.

Until recently, the Stermer’s story was almost unknown outside of the southwestern area of Ukraine where the cave, known as Priest’s Grotto, is located. One survivor, Esther Stermer, wrote a personal memoir of the struggle. More recently, Chris Nicola, an American caver, co-wrote a book on the story called “The Secret of Priest’s Grotto.”

Esther Stermer and her extended family, ranging in ages from 3 to nearly 50, lived underground to escape almost certain extermination at the hands of the Gestapo. Villagers living near the cave knew the Jews were underground and attempted to suffocate them by closing the small opening to the cave at one point, Hirschhaut said. Even the Germans were aware of the Stermers, but didn’t want to brave the difficult passages deep inside the cave to find them, he said. Near the end of the war, one member of the family was killed after he left the cave too soon.

Some members of the Stermer family who lived in the cave still survive today. Their stories of Priest’s Grotto became the bedtime tales for their children and grandchildren. Now, thanks to the new movie, their stories are here for the rest of us.

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