Soon after the fall of the Soviet Union, veteran caver Chris Nicola became one of the first Americans to visit Ukraine's enormous Gypsum Giant cave systems.
Popowa Yama, or Priest's Grotto, is 77 miles (124 kilometers) long, the world's tenth longest cave.
Once inside, Nicola marveled at not only the remarkable natural features of the cave but signs of human presence, including walls and old shoes and walls made of stones.
His Ukrainian companions told him that Jews had lived in the cave during World War II. Some local legends told of survivors; others claimed that none were seen again.
Either way, that was where the story endeduntil Nicola began a ten-year search for the inhabitants of the cave.
He scoured libraries, bookstores, and the Internet for clues to the cave's inhabitants. But it seemed that his search would end in vainuntil he received an unexpected e-mail in New York in December of 2002. The writer, Ed Vogel, said that his father-in-law was one of the survivors of Priest's Grotto.
"I was just terrified that I would somehow accidentally delete that message," Nicola said. Instead he respondedand learned that survivor Solomon Wexler, 74, lived only a few miles away in the Bronx.
Wexler connected Nicola with friends and fellow survivors, including the Stermer family. The group's story slowly began to come to light.
The Stermers and other families, including Wexler's, first sheltered in a well-known tourist cave, where they were nearly captured but managed to escape into the darkness. Wexler's mother and nine-year-old brother were caught and executed.
The near miss made one thing clearthe group needed a better sanctuary.
Munko Lubudzin, a forester and family friend, had an answer. He told the Stermers about the sinkhole that led to Priest's Grotto. It was a fireplace-size hole at the bottom of a shallow, muddy ravine where farmers threw dead livestock.
Once inside the massive cave, some 38 people were able to evade the Nazis for 344 days, until their liberation by Soviet troops. The cave proved a superior refuge, with clean water sources, separate chambers for cooking and smoke ventilation, little or no flooding, a concealed and difficult entry, and a labyrinth of dark passages.
But living in any cave for such an extended time took an unprecedented effort.
A Time of Darkness
The cave's temperature today is constant at 50 degrees F (10 degrees C), and the atmosphere is one of near total darkness.
"It was so dark you couldn't see a finger in front of your face," Shulim Stermer remembered. He noted that they filled small bottles with kerosene to create lanterns.
The longest continuous recorded time a human has spent underground is 205 days. In 1972 Frenchman Michel Siffre lived under Texas for that span during NASA-sponsored research into long-term space flight.
The Priest's Grotto survivors, at least those women and children who did not leave the grotto, seem to have bested that record by a considerable amount.
"It's amazing," Nicola told National Geographic News. "When I go into a cave I have special boots, because an ankle sprain deep in a cave could be serious business. I have special wicking underwear, so I don't get hypothermia, a special suit, special gloves for gripping things. I have three independent light sourcesthat's a standard rule. This is all for a day trip into a cave, and yet this is a situation where average people lived here for nearly a year."
The cave was vast, damp, and isolated. But it was also a haven from the horrors that were unfolding on the surface. "When we were inside we felt some security," Shulim Stermer said, "because we knew it would be very hard for Germans or police to come down there, one at a time, feet first."
Their spirits rose as they improved their cave dwelling. "We closed in an area like a tunnel, and we had good covers, beds, pillows, and we slept," Shlomo recalled. "We adjusted and we slept a lotif you sleep you're not hungry."
The group slept some 15 to 20 hours a day or even longer, on elevated, blanketed beds within a closed gallery that kept hypothermia at bay. Incredibly, nobody became seriously ill.
But the cave could not provide all of life's necessities. The group's men had to occasionally emerge, at night, to replenish stores of food and firewood.
They bought grain from a sympathetic friend and ground it with a mill they had constructed in the cave. In season, they took potatoes and other foodstuff from the fields. Their diet consisted largely of soups and dough.
Firewood was perhaps the most dangerous commodity of all.
"We'd go out, we had no choice but to go out or to die inside," said Shulim Stermer. "We'd cut 10 or 15 trees and cut them into very short pieces, 4 or 5 feet [about 1.5 meters] long, so that they would fit in the entrance. This was the most dangerous thing, because we had to make so much noise in the night."
The group endured several close calls. In July 1943 they were buried by a group of villagers, who blocked the entrance to seal their fate. The men were able to find a narrow, rocky gap near the blocked entrance, and over three days and nights dug their way out. The ordeal actually helped to fortify the cave's entrance.
One November night several men went out to buy grain from a friend named Semen Sawkie but were followed by Ukrainian police. The last sack of grain stuck in the grotto's narrow entranceand likely saved all their lives. On the other side, they heard police talking and a hail of bullets fired at the obstructed entrance. But they were not followed down the narrow, single-file opening.
"We closed up that hole and didn't go out for six weeks," Shulim Stermer remembered. "They probably came and looked for us but never saw a sign. We were lucky there."
Police and villagers believed that the Jews were armed and well secured within a maze of passages and secret exits. In fact, they had no second exit from Priest's Grotto.
"It helped us," Shlomo Stermer said. "The secret was that nobody had been inside, nobody knew how it was inside."
Perhaps most important of all, they had each other. "I think that saved us, because we stuck together," Shlomo Stermer said. "We didn't [run off separately, with] everyone on their own. Some did that, and one by one they were all eliminated. We stuck together, and thank God, we found the right place and we had some breaks."
Eventually, news of the German withdrawal arrived in the cave via a note in a bottle dropped through the cave opening.
"It was unbelievable to think that I could go outside, go around in daylight, and nobody was going to kill me," Shulim recalled. "It was unbelievable. When we found out we were liberated, it was unbelievable joy."
That day began another journey that eventually led the Stermers to a new life in Canada. Yet the remnants of their story remain suspended under the wheat fields of Ukraine, reminders of a time when the world below ground was not so dark as that above.
For more World War II stories, scroll down.
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