How can life be found in the heart of impenetrable darkness? How does one hold on to hope in the depths of such complete and utter despair? In this powerful and inspiring documentary, No Place on Earth, Chris Nicola must ponder these questions and more as he embarks on a journey to illuminate the truth after discovering the remnants of a secret Jewish refuge hidden within a labyrinth of Ukranian caves.
This is Esther Stermer, one of the women who survived in the cave for a year and a half hiding from the Nazis.
The caves represented life to the Jews. Within the dark labyrinth of the grotto, they were given the chance to keep their families together. The water that the cave yielded allowed them to keep their fragile existence from being completely extinguished. Its dark caverns protected them from the deadly forces that sought to destroy them. The walls of the cave allowed them to keep the legacy of their family intact by preserving the names of the souls that were lost to the Germans and the lives that were saved by more than mere happenstance. The connection that they shared with the caves remains intact because they return to the caves to honor the place that kept them alive in their darkest moment.
These men are Saul and Sam Sterner (2 of Esther’s children). They were also in the cave and returned to the cave to say thank you when they were found by Chris Nicola after he discovered it.
One of the strongest themes woven through the film is family. The purpose of hiding within the cave was so they could find refuge from the invading Germans and keep their family together. Whether they were walking in the Nazi’s shadow to their death or whether they were able to remain alive in the protection of the cave, they survived because their family was unbreakable. This battle stems not only from hiding from the Germans, but also from their constant struggle to survive. After their first refuge in the Verteba Cave is compromised, the group finds a second cavern deeper in the earth to protect them from the Nazis. When they are trapped in the grotto after they are literally buried alive, they do not surrender to death. Instead, they search through the darkness until they find a way back to the light. Living in almost total darkness, with barely enough food to sustain them, they hid in their secret refuge at Priest’s Grotto for a year and a half, only venturing outside for brief moments to find food.
This photograph may look like mere graffiti on the cave wall, but in truth it is the names of the people (living and dead) who survived in the caves while hiding from the Nazis.
As I witnessed the incredible account of this secret life in hiding, I was struck by how powerful their story was. The journey of the Jews, whether told through the eyes of a frightened child watching in silence as their family is torn apart or through watching their fragile existence endure when all hope seems lost, is truly inspiring.