(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: In October 1942 A Jewish family in the Western Ukraine found an imperfect place to hide from the invading Nazis, a cave. Their story of 511 days hiding underground was forgotten for more than 65 years until an American stumbled onto unexplained artifacts in a cave and pieced together a harrowing history. Janet Tobias's documentary includes interviews with the actual survivors of the terrifying ordeal. Rating: +2 (-4 to +4) or 7/10

There were eleven million people murdered in the Holocaust and far more counting everyone victimized. With that many people trying to find ways to survive, many approaches were attempted. In 2008 we saw the film DEFIANCE, the true story of an entire mobile community of Jews that lived in the forest and hid from the Germans. Janet Tobias's documentary NO PLACE ON EARTH tells of a similar incident of a group of Jews in Western Ukraine who, faced with near-certain death at the hands of the invading Nazis, chose to live in caves underground for as much as 511 days.

This story was uncovered by a Christian Eastern Orthodox New York investigator, Chris Nicola, whose hobby is exploring caves. He went to Ukraine to find his family roots and while there went cave exploring. In one cave he inexplicably found many man-made artifacts. Asking the locals who could have left the objects nobody could tell him how they came to be there until one villager told him that during the war there were Jews in caves. From there Nicola sought out survivors and reconstructed the story of the attempt at hiding. Some lived, some died at the hands of the Germans, and some died at the hands of the locals. But it makes for a fascinating story of human spirit and the effort to live.

This film tells the story of the Jews in the war hiding in the twisty dangerous caves and includes interviews and reenactments of the desperate families' stories of life and death, fear and heroism, as they attempted to save themselves by living under tons of rock. After his investigations it turns out the story of the Jews who survived in caves was told in an existing book by Esther Stermer, the original leader of the cave Jews. The book WE FIGHT TO SURVIVE was privately published in 1975, eighteen years before Chris Nicola's discoveries.

Actual survivors of the caves tell the story of their past. This area had a large Jewish population before the war. When it looked like the war was coming, one family arranged to leave by boat only to have the plans destroyed when the war broke out and the boat was no longer available. Jews who remained in the area were sent to death camps or ghettos, which would lead to the same end. The only place they could think to hide was the Verteba Cave, in the Bilche Zlota Valley. There were desperate attempts to get enough food and water to stay alive. Some minimal water could be obtained from the cave dripping, but food had to be obtained on nighttime missions to obtain grain from the locals at constant great risk. Eventually, through betrayal or bad luck, the Germans found and raided the cave. One advantage of a cave is that it provides some good hiding places so not all the Jews were caught. Of those who were captured, some could escape and some died. Five families moved to what proved to be a safer cavern, the Priest's Grotto Cave.

This is director and co-writer Janet Tobias's first feature film, and there are some technical problems with the film. One difficulty with the film is that some of the accents make it difficult to understand what is being said. The story is gripping and one I have not heard before. The stories of the caves are compelling. One can look into their eyes of people who lived through the ordeal and still feel see the haunted pain of having lived for many months with at best rare glimpses of the sun. This is a nearly forgotten chapter of Holocaust history brought back to life by this documentary. I rate it a +2 on the -4 to +4 scale or 7/10.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper