for National Geographic News
In October 1942, Jewish families were vanishing all over Nazi-occupied eastern Europe. There was little refuge to be found anywhere on that part of the Earthbut underneath the surface, one group found sanctuary.
The accidental cavers endured a subterranean epic that ultimately saw them survive the horrors of World War II. Now a U.S. caver has recently brought their forgotten story to light in the current issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine.
The extended Stermer family and several others lived in two separate caves for a total of nearly two years, including 344 straight days inside the massive underground sanctuary known as Priest's Grotto.
"The Germans took half the town [Korolówka, Ukraine] to a concentration camp, and the rest had to go to a ghetto," survivor Shulim Stermer remembered from his Montreal home. "That meant to the slaughter house. My mother decided, we're not going there. She told my brother, 'Go to the forest, find some place for us.' My brother found the cave."
Shulim, 84, is the oldest living survivor of those who took refuge in Priest's Grotto.
The group had no special experience or equipment. What they did have was each other, a few helpful friends above ground, and the will to survive.
In the end it would be enough.
But the journey from the darkness above ground to the darkness below was not an easy one.
"The darkness, you know, that first day I would say it was the lowest point of my life," Shlomo Stermer, 74, recalled. "There was no place else to go. That was our last stop and it was very depressing."
The Stermers' difficult journey had a largely happy endingbut remained unknown to the world for some 60 years.
Cave Hides History, Mystery
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