New Film: The Jews Who Survived WWII in Caves

Extended family spent 511 days underground, longest period ever recorded
Peter Lane Taylor

American Caver Chris Nicola explores Priests Grotto, Ukraine, where Jews hid for 511 days during World War II

It's one of the least known survival stories of World War II. In 1942, 38 Jews ages two to 76 sought refuge from Nazi persecution in a vast unexplored cave in the western Ukraine. As the women and children remained underground continuously for 511 days, the men would sneak out at night to steal food. A small underground pond provided a reliable source of fresh water. Now the story we wrote about in EN in August 2008 has become a documentary called No Place on Earth.

In 1993, an American climber named Christos Nicola, now 61, of New York, was one of the first Americans to explore a large cave system named Priest's Grotto about five miles from Korolowka. During his descent he stumbled across names written on the walls and medicine bottles, shoes, mugs, buttons, burnt wood, and railroad spikes, all seemingly abandoned years ago. At 77-plus miles, Priest's Grotto is one of the longest caves in the world.

Jump ahead to April 4, 2013, and there was Nicola in a New York theater receiving star treatment during a screening and discussion with Professor Richard Brown of NYU's Cinema Studies Department (

We learn through the film that the women and children never left their two caves. Only the men went out to steal food. A glass of water, collected by cave drippings, was for a single family for a day.

In an engaging, often funny conversation, Nicola shared his amazement at the fortitude of the 38 survivors who remained underground for 511 days: "They turned themselves into world-class cavers," he said.

Said one survivor who returned to the cave with Nicola almost 70 years later, "We beat the odds. They didn't get us."

Nicola also shared the caver's credo: "Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time."

Prof. Brown called the film, "A significant contribution to history.... This film ends up haunting you, which is what every great film does."

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Incidentally, in case you were wondering, when a movie ends it's rude to walk out when the credits roll. Says Prof. Brown, "You must sit through a movie's credits. To do otherwise - leaving too soon - is disrespectful to filmmakers." Oops.

Nicola made us laugh when he privately advised the budding cavers on our staff how not to get stuck underground, "Always make sure the fat guy is in front of you, not behind."

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