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he Stermer family survival story was unknown for many years or at least not made public by the family. It was only in 2013 that an underground cave explorer by the name of Chris Nicola found their story. Five miles from a small village named Korolowka, there is an underground cave hidden by fields. The cave is known by the locals as the “Priest’s Cave.” The cave itself isn’t so unknown in the present day, as it is recorded as the 10th longest underground cave in the world with a length of 77 miles (124 kilometers).

The struggle for the Jewish people in Ukraine

During World War II, Ukraine was part of the USSR, meaning that by June 1941 the first part of the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany. During 1941 this part of the Soviet Union was held under control by German troops as they were advancing further and further into its center.

Ukraine at the time was housing a large number of Jewish people. Due to this, the resources required by the Germans to transport the Jewish population to different death camps and concentration camps would have been over the top. That is why many villages ended up being erased along with their whole population.

The horror of how many massacres took place in Ukraine is hard to describe, but many of the Jewish families knew their bitter end. There was nowhere to go as most of the region was surrounded by German troops and at the time Romania was on the Axis side. But the Sterner family had a different plan.

Esther and Zaida with their six children originated from Korolowka, a small village in Ukraine that was going to be wiped from the map by the Germans. Knowing this, Ester and Zaida were prepared to do whatever it took to keep their family alive. They as well as six other families knew about the Priest’s Cave and saw it as their only way to survive not only the Holocaust but the whole war.

Sam Stermer, in green, and his brother Saul Stermer, with yellow kneepads, revisited the cave nearly 70 years later (Source: No place on Earth)

Therefore they prepared supplies for quite some time until the last moment when the Germans were nearing the village to execute all its Jewish villagers. At the beginning of 1943, they went underground and quite far from the main entrance so they would not risk being detected by any Axis. This meant that for the rest of the period they would be in the cave, they would not see any natural light, provoking a high deficiency of vitamin D that can only be collected from sunlight.

18 months of darkness

All the 38 people that lived in the cave never knew how long they would live, but they knew that it would take at least a year until something would change above ground. As the days passed, they kept exploring the cave. They had to dig out toilets and showers as well as more living space to allow them to not feel as if they were suffocating. The temperature was always constant at 10 degrees.

Although enclosed in a dark place, Saul and Sam Stermer (the youngest brothers from the family) describe how grateful they were for the freedom they had underground as well as having the ability to go to sleep without fearing being killed. As they hid their village was massacred, with over 1000 people being murdered in cold blood in a matter of minutes. Knowing that they could have been in the same group is just scary.

Messages left by the Stermer family written with coal inside the cave (Source: No place on Earth)

As the first 200 days passed, the supplies were running low, therefore the men had to risk their lives to go above ground and gather resources such as food and coal or wood. The cave had enough water reservoirs for them to drink as well as clean themselves. Someone from the group made sure to keep a record of the days they were inside the cave as well as write motivational messages that were found by Chris Nicola.

“You went to sleep and you had a pillow and you covered up with good blankets — what else do you want?”

Saul Stermer

The boys and most of the people living underground were thankful to Esther Stermer who kept everyone’s hopes up as well as her courage which was shown one day inside the cave. In early 1944, a few German SS officers explored the first part of the cave, at the time Esther was there. As the SS officers pointed their guns at her she said:

“What are you afraid of here? The Fuhrer is gonna lose the war because we live here?”

Esther Stermer described by Sam Stermer

Upon hearing this message, the SS officers left, believing that it was only her living in the cave, never to return. This made all the people dig even further within the cave to make sure they are safe. In April 1944, the Soviet Army liberated Ukraine and everyone was safe to come outside. This was only seen by Zaida when he went out to gather more resources. His return marked the 511th day underground.

When the family exited the cave remarked that they had entered another world, just showing how much they had changed by living underground for such a long time. Their survival inside the cave is the longest uninterrupted underground survival in recorded human history.

Sam and Saul Stermer visiting the cave in 2013 (Source: No place on Earth)

In the 2013 documentary known as No Place on Earth, Saul and Sam Stermer were taken back to the cave where they hid in 1943 and 1944. 70 years after the event, the men were still able to remember every place in the cave, also showing some secret places that they had discovered during their long stay to the explorers that took them in. Both brothers give a much better description of how they lived during the 511 days and how that experience changed their lives forever.

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