An Untold Story of Bondage to Freedom: Passover 1943

How a foxhole that led to a 77-mile cave system saved the lives of 38 Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust.

I realize I’ve been thinking about Passover differently this year. As Jews around the world re-tell the story of bondage to freedom, despair to hope, this Passover I keep thinking about another story. It’s the true — and truly remarkable — saga of 38 Ukrainian Jews who secretly slid through a muddy hole in the ground and discovered a 77-mile cave system. It became their pitch-black refuge below the even darker Holocaust raging above. With unbridled courage, wits, and will, boys and men put their lives on the line every time they snuck out at night to gather supplies. The women and girls never left the cave, living uninterrupted and underground longer than anyone in recorded history.

This remarkable WWII story of five families surviving underground for an astounding 511 days in southwestern Ukraine, the single most dangerous corner of the globe to be a Jew during the war, is no more poignant than at this time of year. By spring 1943, the lead family, the Stermer’s, were scattered in the forest outside their village after having been discovered in hiding by the Gestapo, and having survived a harrowing escape.

One of the Stermer survivors told me what it was like back then, during that Passover in April 1943. Sonia, now 80, was just eight years old in 1943. She remembers her family sharing the Passover rituals with just two hard-boiled eggs, some beets, and potatoes. She remembers the cold forest, but also the warmth of her father leading her newly reunited family in the Passover prayer. They had no Hagaddah (the written prayer service), but Passover is about re-counting the story of a journey from bondage to freedom. And as Sonia says, you don’t need a book for that.

Sam and Saul Stermer inside Verteba Cave in the film No Place on Earth.
Sam and Saul Stermer inside Verteba Cave in the film No Place on Earth.

But Sonia remembers that long ago Passover for another reason. On that Passover day, as her family was in prayer in the forest, an Aktion (rounding up of Jews) was taking place in a nearby village. Aunts, uncles, and cousins were discovered hiding in bunkers, and they were among the 300 Jews killed when a manmade Angel of Death did not pass over them that day.

Many were buried in the large local Jewish cemetery. But just 25 years ago, something unconscionable happened. In the mid-1980s, rather than take over the adjoining farm fields, the town’s mayor ordered the entire Jewish cemetery to be removed so as to provide land for community soccer fields and a recreational complex, which still stands there today. In a repeat of history, many people objected, but few spoke up. So in the mid ‘80s, the bones of some 15,000 Jews, including those of the Stermer family members murdered on Passover 1943, were literally bulldozed into a huge heap. Today, that heap is a long, grass-covered mound — and the only marker is one erected by the Stermer family.

On that Passover 1943, Sonia also remembers crying for her murdered relatives as her family re-told the Passover story of bondage and freedom.

But the forest was too dangerous to stay long. Sonia recalls the terror of hearing dogs at night — they were hunted with animals, like animals. The Stermers once again had to find a better place to hide. Sonia’s young uncles thought about building a bunker somewhere deep in the woods. A Ukrainian woodcutter they trusted thought it was too risky, but as a passing thought, mentioned that while hunting he’d seen a fox escape down a hole. Maybe that hole could provide a temporary hiding place for a few people, for a few days?

Armed with candles and rope, Sonia’s three uncles (then in their teens and early 20s) found that foxhole, slithered down through the mud, and unbeknownst to them, discovered the 11th largest horizontal cave system in the world. A few days later, that cave became the refuge for 38 Jews until the war’s end, when they emerged alive. Some of the children had lived underground so long, they were blinded by a sun they forgot existed.

Every year at Passover, the cave’s survivors re-tell their family story of bondage to freedom. Sonia says they tell it because it must be told — because their children and grandchildren have to know. Like the Passover story.

The Stermers’ story is the inspiration behind the film No Place on Earth, which will be televised on The History Channel in the U.S. on April 26 at 6 p.m. for Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For more information visit www.noplaceonearthfilm.com.

 

Images courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Susan Barnett
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