Skip to comments.Holocaust miracle comes to light
Posted on 05/30/2004 8:52:57 PM PDT by wagglebee
French caver Michel Siffre set an endurance record in 1972, after spending 205 days underground for a NASA-sponsored study.
But his ordeal cannot hold a candle to the 344 days that a group of Jewish families - some now living in Montreal -
endured in a dank maze of caves in western Ukraine to escape the Holocaust.
The little-known story of their miraculous survival, which came to light after explorations of the cave system in 1993 by U.S. caver Chris Nicola, is featured in the current issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine.
"We knew all these years that we had a special story, so we were pleased to see it come out," Shulim Stermer, 84, said yesterday, as family members gathered to reminisce and gently kibbitz each other at his sister Yetta Katz's home in Cote St. Luc.
It is a tale of hardship and perseverance, loyalty and betrayal, and a large measure of good luck.
Esther and Shabsy (Zaida) Stermer, their six children and about a dozen relatives and Jewish neighbours fled to the first of their underground refuges in 1942 after their town of Korolowka was declared "judenfrei" (free of Jews), and the Germans and Ukrainian police began to wipe out the Jewish population.
The first cave - a tourist site called Verteba - had disease-carrying bats, poor ventilation and virtually no fresh water.
Worse, the hideout was known to the Germans, who raided the cave one night and captured several members of the group.
The rest escaped under cover of darkness through an emergency exit they had dug.
Among those detained were 3-year-old Pepkale (Dodyk) Blitzer, her mother, Henia (Stermer) Dodyk, and three of their relatives.
"My mother said she had to find my shoes, and the soldier told her, 'Why bother to dress her - I can shoot her right now,' " Pepkale, now 65, recalled.
"The miracle was that the Germans didn't shoot us right away, but handed us over to the Ukrainian police, who were to take us to the cemetery and shoot us."
One of the other prisoners, Usher Metzker, struck a deal with the Ukrainians: his hidden wealth of gold and silver in exchange for their lives.
"They marched us to the cemetery and made us lie down in a grave, and my mother covered my head with her shawl and told me not to be afraid.
"She said they would just shoot over our heads and then let us go.
"There were five shots, and we got up alive, my mother and I and Usher. But they had killed my aunt and her 9-year-old son."
After a frightening month hiding in nearby towns and farms, the families came upon Popowa Yama, or Priest's Grotto, a 124-kilometre gypsum cave that was largely unknown and unexplored. The Stermers and the other families, 38 people in all, moved into Priest's Grotto on May 5, 1943.
Although their new cave had a large pool of fresh water and better ventilation, the months and months of living underground, with little light, food or warmth tested the families' endurance. Hypothermia was a serious risk in the cold, damp maze.
To conserve energy and food, they slept for up to 22 hours a day, lying side by side on elevated beds for body warmth.
The women and youngest children never ventured aboveground, but the men would set out at night, under cover of darkness, to scavenge for food and fuel, and trade with a few sympathetic peasants for oil, matches, grain and other rations.
In the spring of 1944, the Stermer men found a message in a bottle: The Germans had left.
The survivors finally emerged through the muddy cave entrance on April 12, 1944, into the brilliant daylight.
"I had completely forgotten the sun," recalled Pepkale, "and I said to my mother, 'Turn off the light - it's too bright.' "
In her privately published memoir, We Fight To Survive, Esther Stermer described the families' relief: "We were free!!! We could walk freely in daylight and no longer fear death."
Yet, just months after that walk to freedom, her husband, Shabsy, and her son-in-law, Fishel Dodyk, were killed by thugs.
"That was a terrible tragedy," Pepkale said. "The Germans were no longer there - they killed us only because we were Jews."
Copies of Esther Stermer's memoir have been donated to the Jewish Public Library and the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre.
WARNING: This is a high volume ping list
Wonderful story. Thanks for posting this.
If not for President Bush, we could have been doing something similar to hide from the Muslims. Gore would have invited the radicals in and paid them compensation, because they were forced to fly into the WTC and Pentagon to get our attention.
Who knows what our future holds, but thank God for President Bush right now.
Please add me to your Pro-Israel list.
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