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Saved by a Cave

Rachel Bachrach

How did they do it? How did a collection of inexperienced refugees with nothing but the clothes on their backs become a group of world-class cavers? Chris Nicola, an experienced speleologist, was driven to find out their secret. Finally, he tracked down the survivors who were still alive — the family members who pooled their strengths together for two years of pitch darkness hiding from the Nazis in a labyrinth called Priests’ Grotto.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

caveIn 1993, Chris traveled to the recently opened Soviet Union to search for information about his Russian roots and to explore the famous Gypsum Giant cave systems. Gypsum caves are unique, says Chris, because the way the gypsum crystallizes and fractures creates caves that are very long and labyrinthine in nature. The ninth-longest in the world is Priest’s Grotto, which covers 77 miles in all.

In Priest’s Grotto, Chris was struck by signs of human habitation, including manually constructed stone walls, old shoes, buttons, and tools. The guides from the local caving association told him the objects had been spotted when they first came to explore the caves in the 1960s, and that they’d been left there by a group of Jews who had lived in Priest’s Grotto during the Holocaust. However, no one — not the guides, not the locals, not the people Chris questioned on subsequent trips to nearby towns — knew exactly what had become of those cave-dwellers. Rumors abounded — they were discovered and didn’t survive the war; they died down in the caves; three families made it out — but no one knew with certainty what had happened.

Chris was fascinated and began to research, but none of his leads turned up anything. A few years later, a Ukrainian caver told Chris he’d been hired by a Canadian family to take them to Priest’s Grotto, where they’d lived during the Holocaust. Chris renewed his search for information and put a post on his website about his interest in Priest’s Grotto survivors. It was only several years later that he got an e-mail from someone whose 74-year-old father-in-law had hidden in the cave.

Chris met with the survivor, a Solomon Wexler living in New York, who then introduced Chris to his Canadian cousins the Stermers, who were also survivors. Over the course of nine months, Chris and photojournalist Peter Taylor made six trips to Montreal to speak with Shulim Stermer — the 83-year-old was one of the oldest living survivors at the time — his brother, Shlomo, 74, sister, Etka Katz, 78, and his niece, Sima Pepkale Blitzer, 65.

The Stermer siblings’ mother, Esther, had actually written a memoir about how she, her husband, and their six children, along with their mechutanim the Dodyks, their cousins the Wekselblads (later anglicized to Wexler), and other relatives and neighbors survived the Holocaust by bunking underground in two separate caves for almost two years. Between the memoir, the interviews, and extensive research, Chris pieced together an astonishing account.



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