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Laramie Movie Scope:
No Place on Earth

A story of survival for years in caves

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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December 28, 2013 -- During the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine in World War II it is said that only five percent of the extensive Jewish population there survived the war and the genocide. This is the remarkable story of a few of those survivors who lived over 500 days in caves, coming out into the light only when the German army had been driven from the area.

This remarkable story of survival reminded me of a similar tale told in the film “In Darkness” (2011) about Jews who survived in sewers under the city of Luvov during the war in Poland. This newer Ukranian cave survival story is told in several ways, including dramatic re-enactment of events using actors. The actual cave survivors, including Saul, Sam and Yetta Stermer and Sonia and Sima Dodyk, tell their own stories about their survival.

The film starts off with another character, Chris Nicola, a New York Police detective who is also a spelunker. In 1993, shortly after the breakup of the Soviet Union, he went to the Western Ukraine to explore the vast solutional gypsum caves (nicknamed the “Gypsum Giants”) known as Verteba and Priest's Grotto, near the villages of Bilche Zolote and Strilkivtsi. Nicola was puzzled when he found evidence of human habitation in the caves, buttons, combs, clothing, and writing on the cave walls. When he asked the locals about this, one of them said that Jews may have lived in the caves at one time.

Nicola spent years trying to find out who had been living in these caves. His search is interspersed with the rest of the narrative of this story. Eventually, of course, Nicola finally found out who had lived in the caves. He met one of the survivors, who happened to live not far from his home. Some of the survivors now live in Canada. The movie is based, in part on a book, “We Fight to Survive,” written by one of the survivors, Esther Stermer. Another book, “The Secret of Priest's Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story,” was written by Nicola and Peter Lane Taylor.

German soldiers entered the Verteba Cave and captured some of those hiding there. They were held in prison, guarded by Ukranian police. The families were able to bribe members of the Ukranian police to free some of the prisoners, but police also murdered two of the freed prisoners to protect themselves from the German occupation troops.

Fearing that Verteba Cave was no longer safe, the survivors had to find a new hiding place. They learned from a local hunter of the location of a hole where he had seen a fox escape into. They found the hole in the ground and it turned out to be an unknown entrance to Priest's Grotto cave. This cave had more water in it than the Verteba cave had, so it was better suited for their survival.

The people who survived in these caves, unlike the Luvov survivors, didn't have much help from outsiders. In fact, the local villagers tried to bury them alive at one point by shooting into the entrance to Priest's Grotto cave and then filling it in with dirt. Digging in shifts, the cavers dug around the blockage and created a new exit for themselves.

The survivors stayed underground for over a year and a half. Only the men left the cave, and only at night, to forage for food. At one point, fearing that villagers would find them by tracking them back to the cave, they stayed underground for two months. Nobody left the cave during that time. The tactic worked. Nobody was able to track them. People thought they had died.

The grand finale of this story is the return to the caves by the survivors, some of them over 90 years old. The reaction of the survivors is quite different than that of the other visitors, particularly when the lights are turned off. To the the survivors, the cave is refuge, protection, safety. The cave was their only friend in their long ordeal. It protected them from the relentless danger on the surface of the earth. This film rates a B.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2013 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)