Ever listen to a discussion about how long we’ll be wearing masks in public, doing social distancing, or obeying periods of quarantine? We are certainly a pitiful people to have to suffer such trials and tribulations.
In July of 1942, Hitler double-crossed Stalin and launched his invasion of Russia with a three-prong attack. The top line of offense went north toward Leningrad, the middle line was pointed east towards Moscow, and the bottom line of offense headed for Stalingrad and the Crimea.
Hitler’s armies had previously stormed across the border with Poland, crashing through Slovakia, Romania, and the Ukraine. With a policy of focused racial hatred, Jews all over Eastern Europe were divested of their property, stripped of their rights, and driven into exile from towns where their families had lived for hundreds of years.
Now, with the goal of invading and occupying Russia, the rush of the Germany Army was accompanied by even more brutal persecution of Jews and other nationalities by the Gestapo. Jewish settlements were devastated, whole populations of towns were captured and carried off to concentration camps or extermination camps, and many people were slaughtered where they lived.
A town near the Ukraine/Romania border, named Korolowka, was in the path of Hitler’s war machine and the Jews living there fled into larger cities or into hiding places scattered around the countryside. In the fall of 1942, a number of families committed to remain together and sought out a nearby underground cave system, a well-known location named Verteba, where they would crawl deep into the caves and hide for the winter when Verteba was closed to the public. In the spring, they would search for another hiding place.
With members of the families periodically stealing out to bring back sacks of potatoes, grain, flour, kerosene, matches, candles, water, and whatever else they could pilfer or buy on the black market, it was a constant state of survival for the thirty or so Jews.
They hid in the darkness of the cave system for about 150 days.
In the spring of 1943, a few members were discovered and captured by the Gestapo. Those remaining in the cave escaped by way of a secret outlet they had dug during their confinement. Temporarily hiding in the attic of their old houses, in barns, or in other refuges in town, they were eventually led by a hunter to a sinkhole that formed the entrance to another cave system, locally called The Priest’s Grotto because it lay in the field of a local priest. It was not a publicly known or used cave system; later it would be determined to be the ninth largest cave system in the world.
But it was not spacious and roomy like a Carlsbad Caverns. It was a labyrinth of narrow passageways wandering throughout a hollowed-out layer of limestone. However, the Jews discovered small sinks of water formed by internal springs, as well as circulating air currents that allowed small fires to be lit for cooking. It was quite an improvement over Verteba.
Again expecting members of the families to periodically sneak out to find food, firewood, blankets, and other necessities, Esther and Zeida Stermer, their six children, four relatives, and twenty-six other Jews, on May 5, 1943, fled to the Priest’s Grotto to escape the certainty of the horrors of the Gestapo, the Russians, and the Ukranian police.
Feeling their way down in the darkness, the families lowered themselves through the narrow opening to the chambers below. It would be the last time for many of them to see the sky for nearly a year.
In fact, the majority of that community would live in hiding for 344 days.
Seventy feet below the surface, in total darkness, at a constant temperature of fifty degrees, these thirty-eight individuals lived in a state of near hibernation. They could not tell day from night and their bodies adjusted until they slept eighteen to twenty-two hours at a time, lying on wooden planks scavenged from above, and stayed awake only to perform the very basic needs of survival – cooking, eating, drinking, going to the bathroom, and trying to make their situation more tolerable.
The youngest girl was three; several women were elderly.
Close to a year after they had descended, a message dropped in a bottle down the entrance shaft by a friend, the thirty-eight survivors learned that the Germans had left for good, and, on April 12, 1944, each of them made the arduous climb out the entrance – jaundiced, weak, their skin covered in mud, about two-thirds of their entry weight, blinded by the sun.
They were no longer interested in returning to their town. They made their way through temporary refugee camps in Germany, then fled to the United States. Some of them and their children now live in New York City, Florida, and Canada. To hear more of the details of their story and to read the reasons that they gave for their ability to have survived such a remarkable situation, read The Secret of Priest’s Grotto, by Peter Lane Taylor with Christos Nicola.
Perhaps instead of talking about our extraordinary troubles, we should talk about our opportunities to show extraordinary courage.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.