European Jews who escaped the Holocaust had to be lucky, plucky and farsighted enough to see their fate in time to do something about it.
It didn’t hurt to be rural, far from cities where neighborhoods were turned into ghettos and ghettos into staging areas on the way to a death camp. In the country, knowing the lay of the land, places to hide, and having at least some neighbors who wouldn’t rat them out was a Godsend.
Some of their stories were told in the feature film “Defiance,” about a community of Jews that hid in the forests of Belarus and became partisans – fighting the Nazis and their local stooges.
“No Place on Earth” is about another corner of the Nazi occupied former Soviet Union where Jews escaped the death camps by taking to the woods. But these Jews went underground – literally. And it took an American cop and caving enthusiast to uncover their story.
Chris Nicola is the investigator-spelunker who visited the long-empty caves of Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He found lanterns, shoes, scrawled names and evidence of “not pre-history, but living history” there. Even the oldest locals could give him few clues about who had lived there, and when.
But eventually, he connected with the stories of the Stermer, Wexler, Rubin, Kittner and Dodyk families, who hid underground and risked capture every time they came out to barter, buy or steal food or to cut firewood.
Using actors in scenes set in the dimly lit caverns and caves themselves, “No Place on Earth” tells how the Stermer matriarch, a tough peasant woman, vowed to not move with her family into a ghetto, and who sent her enterprising sons to find them a suitable place to hide. Families decamped for those caves in 1942, and stayed underground for hundreds of days, waiting for the Nazis to be vanquished.
“What a mother, what a mother,” her son Saul remembers, a woman who engaged in no-nonsense bargaining with Nazis and Ukrainian collaborators, who once, when a cave was raided and they were being marched out, shoved children into nooks and crannies even as they were being led to the surface at gunpoint.
It’s an epic story of survival, largely related through diary entries of that mother and interviews with the aged survivors of this ordeal. Their neighbors from the village sealed them in, trying to entomb them underground. Others kept their secret and helped.
The film has structural problems owing to the way director Janet Tobias tried to make Nicola’s search for clues as compelling as the stories of those who endured those months underground. It doesn’t work as a mystery, and cutting back and forth to Nicola’s “hunt” after we’ve met the survivors fails dramatically.
But as an account of people who escaped the fate of millions through luck and their own ingenuity, “No Place on Earth” is a heroic recounting of lives lived on the knife’s edge of survival, when survival was the ultimate revenge on their enemies.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violent images
Cast: Chris Nicola, Sonia Dodyk, Saul Stermer,
Credits: Directed by Janet Tobias
A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:23