Off the Face of the Earth By Peter Lane Taylor, National Geographic Adventure Magazine, June/July 2004
Over a decade ago, cave explorer Chris Nicola began his investigation into a little-known tale of Holocaust survival. What he uncovered involved 38 Jews, one of the longest caves on Earth, and 344 days without daylight.
In the spring of 1944, a group of 38 Ukrainian Jews emerged weak and jaundiced from a cave they’d used for nearly a year to escape the horrors of the Holocaust. Nearly fifty years later, one caver began his quest to bring their story of survival to life.
In 1993, veteran caver Chris Nicola became one of the first Americans to explore Ukraine’s famous Gypsum Giant cave systems. While there, during an expedition into the tenth longest cave in the world, his team came across two partially intact stone walls and other signs of habitation. Local residents, who revere the Gypsum Giants as national treasures, told Nicola that a group of Ukrainian Jews spent months in the cave evading the horrors of the Holocaust. No one seemed to know who had survived, however, and some questioned whether any had seen daylight again. Fascinated, Nicola grew determined to learn how people with no prior caving experience or specialized equipment were able to live in such a hostile environment for so long.
Ten years later, after an extensive search, Nicola located six of the cave survivors, most of them members of the extended Stermer family. The story they told was even more remarkable than the legend Nicola had heard while in the Ukraine, involving not one cave hideout, but two, and nearly two years spent underground.
By piecing together interviews with the survivors and artifacts they found while in Ukraine, Nicola and Taylor were able to develop a clear picture of the Jews underground life.