In 1993 American cave enthusiast Christopher Nicola traveled to western Ukraine in hopes of learning more about his ancestry and to explore Priest’s Grotto, one of the longest caves in the world. Once deep inside, while traversing areas believed to only be accessible by experienced cavers with proper equipment, he found a woman’s shoe, then some buttons and several other objects that suggested a number of people had spent a significant amount of time down there. He began to ask around the surrounding village in attempt to learn the story behind these items. Nobody seemed to want to talk to the friendly New Yorker and he had almost given up on the mystery until someone said “maybe some Jews lived down there.”
Nicola’s investigation serves as documentarian Janet Tobias’ entry point for "No Place on Earth," the extraordinary story of 38 Jews who descended into the cave to hide from the Nazis in 1942, all of whom, despite several close calls, emerged 511 days later to the unfamiliar sight of the sun. Though few of us could ever imagine living through such harrowing circumstances in our lifetime, there are still those among us who remember this dark period vividly. Survivors Saul Stermer, Sam Stermer, Sonia Dodyk and Sima Dodyk give the film its heart and soul by relaying their experiences with a recall that would make one think these events were part of recent memory, not ones which occurred 70 years ago.
The story is fleshed out with slick reenactments and concludes with the survivors making a return visit to the cave for the first time since the war (they emigrated to New York and Montreal directly afterwards). Perhaps most striking was how comfortable and content the Stermer brothers (now aged 85 and 92) appeared down there. Their counterintuitive response to this environment is explained by Tobias; “the dark, scary places were actually where safety was, and outside were the monsters. The world was turned upside down.” In the end, they had developed quite an affinity for their unlikely asylum.
"No Place on Earth" had its world premiere at TIFF on Monday night with some very special guests in attendance. “Emotional” seems too humble a word to describe what it was like to watch this film in the same room as the survivors. Following a standing ovation, Sima Dodyk, the youngest of the survivors said “I think I waited all my life for this moment.” She went on emphasize the often overlooked fact that the killing of Jews continued in Ukraine even after the war had ended, with victims including her grandfather and father.
The Stermer brothers were in high spirits and amused the audience with some humorous anecdotes that didn’t make it into the film. For example, during one of their excursions for food they stole a sheep from a nearby farm, for which Saul eventually made amends by reimbursing the farmer’s grandson upon their return visit in 2010 (though he didn’t mention whether he paid what the sheep would have been worth in 1942 or today’s going rate).
Nicola’s presence is maintained throughout the film as he pursues the story and even assists them with their journey back into the cave. Also present during the screening, it was clear that the experience was a bonding one for all them and created a kind of extended family which included the filmmakers. In the search for knowledge of his own heritage, Nicola ultimately uncovered something much greater.
In keeping with the theme of family, Tobias emphasized the closeness and determination of everyone involved in the production. As she said on Monday night, “it took our family to help this family tell their story.” Sadly, as time has that pesky habit of moving forward, it won’t be long before this story transitions from “living history” into something we will only be able to learn about through documents such as this film.
"No Place on Earth" screens again Sunday night in Toronto.