BY ANDREW FISH
Esther Stermer knew the future was bleak for the Jews of Korolowka in western Ukraine, and entrance into the ghetto would be just a stop on the way to the Belzec concentration camp. The stoic matriarch forbade her family from signing in to the walled city and sent her son Nissel into the woods to find a hiding place. He decided on a tourist cave called Verteba, a few miles north, and in October 1942 several dozen Jews fled their homes to seek safety underground. They survived there for nearly half a year until the Gestapo found them. Most escaped through a secret exit that the reluctant yet now-expert cavers had had the forethought to locate, widen, and lock down months earlier. They hid on the outskirts of the villages but Esther knew they wouldn’t last if they didn’t find a new “bunker.” Tasked again by his mother, Nissel sought help from a local woodsman, who directed him to a small sinkhole he had once seen a fox run into. And so they discovered Priest’s Grotto, what is now considered the 14th longest cave in the world, with 77 miles of caverns and passageways.
Director Janet Tobias steeps audiences in this story of darkness, family, survival, and triumph with her new film, No Place on Earth. Together with renowned cinematographer César Charlone (The Constant Gardener, City of God), she has meticulously blended documentary and scripted filmmaking, including dramatic reenactments alongside interviews with Nissel’s younger brothers Saul and Sam Stermer, and their nieces Sonia and Sima Dodyk. The film also features Chris Nicola, the cave enthusiast who first brought the story to light in a 2004 National Geographic article, a collaboration with writer Peter Lane Taylor.
Tobias got her start at CBS’s “60 Minutes” as associate producer for Diane Sawyer. The Yale graduate has since produced and directed for “Dateline NBC” as well as ABC’s “Nightline,” “20/20,” “World News Tonight,” and “Good Morning America.” She was executive producer on PBS’s Emmy-winning “Life 360,” and her parallel career in health and information technology has led her to an adjunct assistant professorship at Mount Sinai’s School of Medicine. The filmmaker and media professional took some time to speak with us about No Place on Earth.
Iconic Interview: Had you had any experience with caves before you began work on this film?
Janet Tobias: It was an entirely new arena. I had probably been to the entrance to a couple of caves, like most of us, but I had never been caving before, so this whole underground [experience] was completely new to me.
What was your reaction when you first heard the story?
It was, frankly, the most incredible adventure-survival story I had ever heard. Being lucky and starting at “60 Minutes” after university, I had been privileged to hear a lot of great stories, and I had never heard a story like this, which made me want to tell it to begin with. I had seen a lot of really great documentaries and dramas about the Holocaust and I thought, should there be another [film]? But I’ve always thought of it first as an adventure-survival story for everyone. I’m not Jewish, and I was just blown away by how they told the story and what they had been able to accomplish.
You went to Ukraine and took the families back to the caves before you did their on-camera interviews. I assume you did pre-interviews, and I’m curious about the evolution of your interactions with the family members as their stories that they told you became more descriptive and personal.
Of course we did pre-interviews, and they had to get a sense that we were going to be careful with their story. They cared desperately [about], as Sam will say, “Nothing more, nothing less.” The facts are the facts. We went to Ukraine first for two reasons: They were getting very old. Saul was already 90; Sam in his mid-80s; the women in their 70s — and physically, Saul said to me that he and Sam couldn’t make it past when we went, which was in the fall of 2010. But I also thought it would be a good idea to take them back because in doing their interviews, they would have fresh memories of their return. They had told it a lot among each other. As Saul and Sam will jokingly say, they told it to each other on the golf course all the time, and they played really bad golf, because they would get so involved in the story. And then they would make a pact, saying, “For three holes, we’re not talking about [it] at all because we’ve got to have a good game today,” and it would deteriorate by the third hole. But taking them back to the Ukraine, for each of them, was a very individual experience. They were all different ages when this happened. Sima was a small child, from about three to five. Sonia was an eight-year-old girl. Sam was in his early-to-mid teens, and Saul was a very, very young adult — about 20 years old. So for them, I think they went back to those ages, and that experience. When they told it around the dinner table it was a unified story, and you could feel the differences in their individual experiences in the interviews after they had gone back.
Can you think of a story you were told that made you realize that you were getting to the heart of this family’s journey?
I think the heart, in the return, was when Saul and Sam were in the first cave, and Saul said, “Turn out the light. Sam, if we turn out the lights, you’re going to see exactly where we are.” In [that] moment, something that I had sort of thought about — the fact that light and dark got switched, and the dark world was outside, the scary world was outside, and the inside was safe. In a moment, emotionally, he made it real, because he felt safe, and recognized home in the dark, which was such a stunning moment for all of us when that happened. I think that crystallized it. In the end, nature was their friend, and human nature that wasn’t close to them was what you were afraid of.
After experiences like those, did you feel closer to them? Did you find that their interactions with you shifted in any way?
I think that they were really happy that they had returned, and that the story was being told. And as they realized, when they came back, that they had this experience, and Saul was able to share it with his granddaughter, that brought him closer to me, for example. Because, as he says in the film, “It was worth a million dollars to have my granddaughter see that, and understand what we did.” It is the process of us telling the story together to a wider audience that has brought us together.
That was the most emotional part of the film for me, as the older generation showed the younger generation what they had gone through. Was it emotional for you to see that as well?
I love that every day now, when I talk to Saul, I hear a 92-year-old laugh, because he’s so proud that his family understands, in a mud-under-your-fingers way, what they accomplished, and that the wider world can see. The Stermers, I always think, are “act-ors,” not reflectors. They are adventure-survival people; they’re fighters, as Sam would [say]. So what they did was not about thought and reflection, but about doing. And I actually think I learned a lot from them in that way. They put one foot in front of themselves and by doing that, they managed to turn the impossible into possible.
You went down into the Priest’s Grotto cave?
Oh, of course. I spent days and days and days and days in Priest’s Grotto! [laughs] Going down in Priest’s Grotto entails going down about 100 feet [on] a rusty ladder in a rusty pipe, then in a tiny, winding, descending passage, going another 70 feet where any male member of the crew had to turn sideways to actually get through. And César Charlone — of City of God and Constant Gardener fame — told me the first time we went through, “I could actually get stuck here!” And he’s not a big guy. And then you go through muddy, small rooms where we had to dig out trenches so the water could flow down, so you could go over it, and then you’re in the bigger rooms. So it was a huge undertaking for anyone to get in and out of the cave, and that was our journey to work every day! I’m not claustrophobic [and] I’m fairly athletic. I learned how to rock-climb for this film, but the thing that amazed me about caves is that we live in a world of ambient light, where there’s a streetlight, a house light, a building light, a car light — and even in the forest there’s starlight and moonlight. In a cave there is nothing. It is pitch black. And, literally, when you turn out the lights, which we did just to get that feeling, you can’t see a person five feet away from you. And I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” Ten days, two weeks, three weeks, five-hundred and eleven days? Unimaginable. That was what got me. [Two] people on my crew were claustrophobic and one didn’t go in — one of the producers — and the sound man was valiant and brave, and really, frankly, miserable because it made him totally anxious to be down under there.
So just as the film makes the audience wonder if they could live through something like this, the experience of being there did the same for you?
That was it for me. The idea that you live in the dark with minimal, minimal candle or lantern light, which you’re conserving because every time you run out of any kerosene, you’ve got to go up and risk your life to get more. That level of darkness for that length of time, I can’t imagine. I think of this as a young men’s story for the incredible, brave things that the teenage boys and very young men in their 20s did, who — every week — went out, risking their lives, not knowing if someone would be outside. Not knowing if they got captured, if they would be killed or forced to be led back to the cave. But, inside, as a woman, I think about [how] Esther Stermer was one tough woman. She really kept her own counsel. She read multiple newspapers in multiple languages before the war. When, frankly, no one else in that town did, [she] said, “It’s not going to be okay, and I’m not going to let the people I love do the expected thing.” Even though a lot of them wanted to go sign up and register in the ghetto, she refused to let her family do that. She did things like keep the calendar of the moon cycle in her head so she could protect her sons from going out when it was too bright. She was a master general. She carried her son for miles and miles on her back.
The interactions between people must be so different when there’s no light or sense of day and night.
[As] Sam said, he was a young teenaged boy, and he was like, “I became an explorer! I could, with my feet and my hands, memorize the cave.” And you think, of course that’s what young teenaged boys do, right? But you do that in the dark. And Sonia, at eight, sometimes imagined the cave as this magical castle-like world. So each of them had quite unique experiences. And children have different experiences than adults, which is exactly how it is in real life.
In this case, in a very different environment.
Yes, and they really did view the cave as their friend. As Sima, the youngest, said, “I want to go back in and thank the cave for keeping us safe.” Saul would say to me, “That’s my cave!” [laughs]
And they found the cave because someone said they saw a fox running down a hole, and maybe they should check it out?
The first cave was a known cave. It had been discovered, and actually had [historic significance]. There are artifacts from the first cave in the Krakow museum today. But they went there [during winter] so people wouldn’t be in the fields, and then they started moving back in that first cave because they understood that people did know where it was and they needed to be back in unexplored areas. Then they were found, of course, and thankfully they had the secret exit. In the second cave, the boys — the young men — heard the woodcutter say that there was a fox that had gone down there. The assumption was it was a small cavern where maybe a small group of people could hide — and they happened to discover what is the 14th longest cave in the world. Seventy-seven miles long.
It’s like they fell down the rabbit hole.
Yes, it is a massive one. Caves — and now I’ve been in a few — are different, but once you get down, it’s a massive maze, which is actually really scary. That would be the other thing that scared me, is if you don’t look constantly ahead of yourself and behind yourself, you don’t know where you are. This cave is just a massive 77-mile-long series of passageways, so you had to constantly keep track. We had to tape off the small section of the cave that we were working in and constantly be vigilant so that people weren’t going to [go in] the wrong direction [and] get lost in the cave, because it’s so easy to do that.
It’s amazing that none of the family did get lost, and that they all stayed together.
In a weird way, the film taught me how much we depend on each other. They couldn’t depend on people outside; they didn’t have the protectors that some people did, in a consistent way, consistently bringing food or hiding them. It was the collective ability of the group of five families. They had people like Nissel, who was unbelievably strong and brave. They had people like Saul who could make anything out of anything. A sleigh with no nails, where he bent wood, that could take hundreds of pounds of grain, and you could collapse it and put it down the tiny cave entrance and bring it out and [reassemble] it. That you had someone like Esther who was calculating in her brain all the time. What’s the moon cycle? What’s the day cycle? Is this piece of information reliable or is it a trap? And then you had people who were really just kind and compassionate in the cave. When the little boy, Sol Wexler, was hungry, one of the women in the cave knew that he was stealing, and she would take the potato that he put in the wall — which is not in the film — and she’d cook it and put it back in the wall so that he could have it. I’m an American like you are, and we can be an individualistic, hearty group, and I think this reminded me how much we are better for depending on and supporting each other.
There is a scene in the film where they are celebrating Yom Kippur and they are fasting. What role do you think their religious observance played in their ability to endure this experience?
I think that if they were celebrating the holidays, faith mattered. And I think faith was a representation of their culture and their heritage. As a group, they were singled out for annihilation for their culture and their history and their religion and their ethnicity. So the celebration of who they were as Jews was essentially beating Hitler, and saying, we are these people, and as a community, that is who we are, and we will share that experience together. So I think faith, for them, had a lot of levels to it, which was a lot about community and history and belief in that community and history. “But not hard to fast!” as Saul would say. [laughs]
I found that part amazing. The idea of Yom Kippur is to deny yourself so that you can focus on the heart of the matter, and here they are in the ultimate state of denying themselves, and scarcity, and still they’re going to do this as well.
I think Sonia, actually, has such lovely memories. She remembers her father’s voice. He had a really beautiful voice, like a cantor, and that some people were crying. Obviously, it was really difficult for them in terms of reconciling faith with what was happening — but she just remembers her father’s beautiful voice. Singing and the prayers.
As the film shows, some of the family members tried to stay in the Ukraine after the war but had to leave because of continuing violence against Jews. Was it especially bad in the Ukraine for Jewish people after the war?
I think it was really terrible in the Ukraine. Particularly there, in that the Russians came in; there were a group of Ukrainian partisans called the Bandera that were fighting the Russians, because the Ukraine had been this fought-over land between the Poles and the Russians — and then, obviously, the Germans and the Russians. It is not a pretty picture of what happened in Ukraine during the war, with collaboration with the Germans. Jews continued to be singled out and killed, so the family realized that they were not safe, and they moved to Poland. It was actually where they were living before the war, but it was eastern Poland. They moved to western Poland [from] the Ukraine, and it was also still not good for Jews. Then they moved to DP camps — displaced persons camps — in Germany, and Sam will tell you the great irony after the war was the safest place in Europe to be a Jew was Germany.
There’s an idea that the sun came out after the war, but it seems like there was still a lot of hatred and intolerance.
It gets quite specific, and they will tell you in a province where less than five percent of the Jews survived, [that] their belongings had been taken [and] people [did not want] to give belongings back. This is truly a story of triumph and not defeat for the family coming out of the cave, [but] I found the heartbreaking part [to be] after the war. After surviving 511 days underground and after the Germans had lost the war, that you wouldn’t be safe. It just seems unimaginable.
How did the experience of making this film change the way you look at your own life?
What I’ve said about it is, it makes me realize how important family and really close friendships are. At the end of the day, those are the people that we rely on, and it is those bonds that allow us to do things that we don’t think we can. That a mother will carry her 21-year-old son on her back in rain and snow, and she will do that because those are the bonds of family and friendship. You will see two brothers who got such strength and companionship from each other. It emphasized to me how much the bonds of family and friendship are really important, and how much they can make us capable of things that we might not believe we are capable of.
I had a fantastic team making the film. A lot of people who do much bigger films just really felt touched by this story. The adventure-survival part spoke to cinematographer César Charlone, who [is from] Brazil. It spoke to [Eduard] Grau, who lives in Spain. It spoke to Claus Wehlisch and Alexander Berner, who are editors who live in Germany, and Deirdre Slevin who is American but originally was born and lived in Ireland. It spoke to a lot of people about what was important in family and friendship, and about the ability of people to do great things under unimaginable conditions, and not have it destroy their souls. One of the things I love about the Stermers is that they laugh, at moments, telling this. Saul is such a joyous person. And to come through this, knowing that you can fight back, and have a nervous breakdown, and still get up and triumph, is to know what real courage is. Because it’s not about not being afraid; it’s about finding the connection with those closest to you, so that you can do things that you didn’t think you could do.
Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. This is a really important film, and I’m looking forward to getting the word out about it.
Thank you. I really appreciate it — and know that you will have a 92-year-old who will be laughing away, because he is so happy that people are seeing this story! [laughs]
It’s an important area to keep exploring, especially while these people are still alive.
Yes, and that’s why, ultimately, I did a blended drama and doc. I thought you really needed to see the caves and really understand the world and understand the physicality of them as [doers] and fighters. But also, we are in the last few remaining years of eyewitnesses, of people who can say, “[It] happened to me.” Ten or fifteen years from now, there will be no one. There will be no one left who can say that.
No Place on Earth is now on screen in New York, and opens to wider release on April 12th. For more information and showtimes, visit noplaceonearthfilm.com.