... by hiding in a cave for 511 days. AVIVA talked to the film director Janet Tobias and cave expert Chris Nicola about their experiences during the realization and making of the film.
Most likely, nobody would have ever known about this story, if it had not been for the New Yorker spelunker Chris Nicola. In 1993, while visiting The Ukraine to research his own family┬┤s history, Chris Nicola discovered in the Priest┬┤s Grotto which is one of the biggest caves in the world, shoes, buttons, pieces of plates and other objects that had been owned by the people who lived there. Ten years later, he received an email from the son-in-law of one the people who had actually survived in the cave. Quite by chance, this person lived in New York, only eleven kilometres away from Nicola. The rest of the family had also emigrated to the USA or Canada.
As a result, Nicola published the book, The Secret of Priest┬┤s Grotto, and an article about his findings. Film-maker Janet Tobias then got to know about the story and was offered the opportunity to make a documentary about it. She accepted and decided to include Chris Nicolas┬┤s personal quest in the film since he had brought "physical life to the story." For her, it was important to have a caver in order to bookend the story and create an understanding of what the survivors in the cave went through. She also wanted him to take the living family members back to the cave.
AVIVA-Berlin: You are an experienced documentary director, but when you were presented with the idea of making a film about the Holocaust you were skeptical at first because the bar in this field is set very high. After you read about the incredible unique story and talked to Chris Nicola and the Stermers, you were convinced to make the film. What was the crucial moment that changed your mind?
Janet Tobias: Two things. One is Chris and the Stermer Family. They were so good at telling what had happened to them. The Stermers were filled with such pride about what they had done, their spirits were really intact and they had a very different way of telling the story than I had heard before. There was sadness and anger but also laughter, and family and connection. And secondly: after my graduation I worked for a [news and current affairs] programme called "60 Minutes" in the United States. Till the present day, it is one of best stories I have ever heard in my entire life, the best survivor story I have ever heard. It was an incredible story and I just knew it had to be told.
AVIVA-Berlin: The survivors were very interested to return to The Ukraine and visit the caves again. What was their first reaction about making this documentary?
Janet Tobias: They definitely wanted to go back. They are proud. Saul Stermer the oldest at 92 now, said: "What a Story, what a Story!" They really wanted to tell it. I think there was a little bit of a testing ground. Chris had a bit of a harder time, since he started earlier. Both of us are not Jewish. So they wanted to be sure in my case that I would take care of the story and do a good job, and that I would be factually accurate. They said to me over and over again: "Nothing more, we don┬┤t want it to be dramatized. We don┬┤t want it more elaborate. Nothing less, we don┬┤t want more than the truth." Once they trusted me that I would do that then it was easy. Chris had a little harder time, since he had a Ukrainian/Russian background.
AVIVA-Berlin: After 20 years, how did you feel about the idea of making a film documentary not only of the survivors┬┤ story but also of your own?
Chris Nicola: It was part of my life. I mean, it is part of my life. I┬┤m 62 now, so it was one third of my life. Originally when I went in the caves and I saw the shoes and other things, and after I got involved, I thought: "Wouldn┬┤t it be something when some day there would be a documentary." It was a long way to that process and when I first reached out to Saul Stermer he was not that interested in speaking to me. And as Janet mentioned, word got out that I was part Cossack and this was not a thing to tell Jewish people from that area when you want them to trust you. I called Peter Lane Taylor, who wrote the book with me - "Secret of the Priest┬┤s Grotto" - and told him that this story may never get told. So we thought about a different way to approach it, and we realized we were dealing with successful businessmen that are used to be in control, make enormous decisions. Neither Peter nor I were Jewish. We were a different generation and we were sticking our noses into a family story. So we came up with the idea to write a letter, send the letter to them. That way, in the privacy of their own home, they could make the decision. They would be in control. But we wanted the letter to show that we had a proven track record of doing things like this around the world, and we knew what we were doing. I know the cave better than anyone else outside the former Soviet Union and [I knew] that we were going to make a documentary with or without them, but that we would welcome them to make sure we got it done properly. We sent the letter and two weeks later, after we had waited and waited, I walked into my apartment. I still have the tape of the answer machine, and with the sweetest voices I┬┤ve heard in a long time, Saul Stermer was saying: "Hallo, hallo, Mr. Nicola. My family and I wanna meet you guys." And the rest is history.
AVIVA-Berlin: You chose to shoot the returning to the cave scenes first, since most of the living survivors were already quite old. How did that affect the film?
Janet Tobias: They were 91 to 76. And Saul, who was 91, said to me: "We have to go this year. If we don┬┤t go, we won┬┤t be able to go." So we did this first, which was a good thing, because it awakens memories. Particularly in Sonia who was the older of the two little girls. She remembered more. I think she was eight or ten when it happened. When she was in the physical places, her emotions attached to memory were much stronger. Her interview was actually dramatically different and better because somehow being there made her see everything again. Chris had an experience when she went in the cave with him.
Chris Nicola: It was an unbelievable experience. When I walked into Verteba cave with Sonia, I was taking her to what I thought was their camp. Subsequently I found out it was the second camp. As I was walking her through the cave she stopped and said: "Look, this was our cave. This was where I used to cook with my grandmother. Look where the smoke is."
I have been going to The Ukraine for 19 years. And every time I went to Verteba I stood under this crack and I looked up and there was the smoke. I┬┤ve heard stories like this when you┬┤re around someone and they take you back in time. I never experienced that in my life as I did with Sonia. She took me and the film crew back in time. We felt like we were back with her at 9 years old I remember looking at the film crew and I had to get out of frame because my eyes were tearing up and I looked at the film crew. There wasn┬┤t a dry eye. We looked at each other and said: "Wow!" It was unbelievable.
AVIVA-Berlin: Your film is a hybrid between a feature film and documentary. What was the biggest challenge for you as a documentary filmmaker in working with actors for the first time?
Janet Tobias: I fell in love with working with actors. I really did. At working with actors, I was really blessed. There is a big acting tradition in Hungary. We had some great actors who would do a lot stage work as well as film in Hungary. The biggest challenge was not working with actors but the language challenge ÔÇôwith a few exceptions they only spoke Hungarian. The woman who plays Esther Stermer played and spoke English. She actually acted in theater in the United States. The actor who played one of the brothers, also spoke English. In general we had to use translators and that was a complicated process because we had to explain to children enough so that they could imagine what the world was like and answer the questions through translation. The other part that was challenging, but I had great support, was the cinematography because we were filming underground and trying to give people a sense of the darkness and the cave in pretty hostile environments. Even the cave we used in Hungary was much easier than the one in The Ukraine, it was hard not to over light the caves and [still] give you a sense of what it was like; it was challenging to work there, even for the cinematographers who were very talented
AVIVA-Berlin: Was it impossible to shoot in the original caves in The Ukraine?
Janet Tobias: I actually did investigate at some stage in The Ukraine but it was easier to shoot in Hungary. The caves in The Ukraine are too difficult to get in and out of.
AVIVA-Berlin: Esther Stermer, the matriarch of the family, who decided to hide with her family in the cave, wrote a memoire "We fight to Survive". She is, apart from the memoirs by Sol Wexler and the interviews of the survivors, the most important source for the film. Would you consider making a feature film about her life?
Janet Tobias: I think I definitely want to work with actors. This is the clearest documentary that could be a drama. It feels like a drama of what happens, but I think it┬┤s time for some other director to take the story .Then with drama you have a little bit more freedom to do things and you could include other families. In ways we were really trying to be true to the four Stermers, their children and grandchildren, their mother, and her nephew in the writing. I do think that someone should maybe play with this in drama. Esther would be such an incredible role for an actress.
AVIVA-Berlin: This story of surviving the Holocaust is unique. Why isn┬┤t it more widely known?
Chris Nicola: Two reasons: First, Esther herself gives the answer. In the beginning of her book, she writes that this book will never be sought after as a major piece of literature because "it┬┤s rather mundane." She said: "It┬┤s mundane because I wrote it the way it was and sadly under the Nazis, murder was mundane." The other reason goes back to a conversation I had with Saul Stermer. When I started that project, I said: "I keep being asked this question, when I approach people about getting involved in this, about doing a book, doing a magazine article. And the question I┬┤ve been asked was: "If this story is true how come nobody knows about it. And Saul Stermer asked "What was your answer?" I told him, "Think of it in the same way as that Harrison Ford movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark". They take this priceless treasure, they put it in a nondescript box, they put it in a shelf and they lose it. So, this story must have gone lost among the 1000s of Holocaust stories, where no one saw that the fine thread that could be used to pull it out and distinguish it from the others. And Saul Stermer, he is a master at one-liners, said: "You got the answer half right." He told his granddaughter Erin, who was sitting there, and who is in the film. Saul said to Erin: "Please tell Mr. Nicola how I came to your school." When she was 8 years old the kids in her class were teasing her about the way she talked about her grandfather. So for one week she came home every night and she cried and pleaded with her grandfather Saul Stermer to go with her to her class. Eventually he did and told the story. And next day the kids in her class were teasing her twice as much for having a crazy old grandfather, with a vivid imagination. And he said: "We realized, no one would believe us, even our fellow Jews, with the numbers of the camps still on their arms, couldn┬┤t believe us, because the statistics, were so staggering." So metaphorically the story laid buried over 60 years until they and the rest of the family got confidence and trust in Janet, me and Peter Lane Taylor to tell the story they couldn┬┤t tell themselves.
AVIVA-Berlin: In the film we learn how noone welcomed the survivors after they returned to their home village Korolowka, and how the local population was also reluctant to talk to you when you first asked them about the people who hid in the caves. Do you know if their attitude has changed since then?
Chris Nicola: I was a foreigner, communism had just collapsed. I remember some of my early walks down the streets. I would see the people behind the shutters, close the shutters, and close the curtains and I asked some the Ukrainian cavers with me if that because I am an American. They said: "It┬┤s because you are an American who may be Jewish coming back to reclaim the land and the property. "And there were a number of other things. Some of the Ukrainian cavers were Jewish and they never offered any information to me, but they didn┬┤t have much information to offer. And when I asked one of the cavers: "Why didn┬┤t you offer me what little you had?" He said: "Chris, you don┬┤t understand. Under the communists you didn┬┤t discuss Jewish History." And I said: "But this had a happy ending." And he said: "Under the communists you didn┬┤t discuss Jewish History." It┬┤s still a dark area and they weren┬┤t welcoming me there to tell a story about the Jewish family. But over time people have started to open up and some rather unusual things started to happen as recently as ten years ago. Older people, Ukrainians that didn┬┤t want to talk to me would start pulling me up to them and with the help of some Ukrainian cavers they would start whispering about what they went through. An old woman came to me. She had tears in her eyes and said to me: "I stood here and I watched my 6-year-old Jewish friend being shot in front of a hole there as they started coming out.
AVIVA-Berlin: Is there any kind of memorial or museum about the Jews who were hiding in the caves?
Janet Tobias: It┬┤s only taken care of by the local caving club. The first cave, Verteba, is controlled by a small museum in the town of Bliche Zolote. You can go visit that cave. I would personally wish that the objects of Priest grotto would find a home in a museum. The grinding stone would probably be okay, but the shoes, as every year that goes by, deteriorate. There are a few objects that have gone missing over time. There is a museum partner in the United States, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center that is a partner with the U.S. Holocaust Museum and we are actually meeting with Yad Vashem at the end of the month and we really try to facilitate how we want to have this as a museum exhibition and how we would preserve the objects and would be able to travel not only in North America but also in Europe. I think it is really important and it brings things to life.
AVIVA-Berlin: What was the most challenging and most emotional moment for you during the making/shooting of the film?
Janet Tobias: I think for me it was the moment in the film where Saul says: "Turn off the lights, please. Now I feel at home." I thought along in a sort of metaphoric way, about how the world got switched, heaven and hell got switched, or light and dark. The scary place of caves was actually the safe place. Light was scary and your neighbour could turn you in. But it┬┤s when he said that, in that moment nature, cave and darkness were safety and home. In a moment he summarized the switched world in a poetic and emotional way. That is the moment that I remember always.
Chris Nicola: Again, I┬┤m not Jewish and when I grew up I heard about the evils of slavery in America. I heard about the horrible treatment against the Native Americans and I heard about the number: six million, the estimated number that perished in the death camps. But at that time, whether it was five million, six million or seven million, to me it was simply a large number. And I hate to quote somebody like Joseph Stalin but he once said: "The death of an individual is always a personal tragedy; thank goodness the death of millions is nothing more than a mere statistic." After having spent ten years looking into the eyes of the people that we took back who were on the film and let them pull me into their world, all the time knowing the one thing I can never say is: "I know, I understand." I finally realized something and that is that the Holocaust was never one individual story of how six million people perished. It was six million individual stories of brothers, sons, fathers, lovers, classmates and friends. And the number six million took on a completely different meaning in my life. It became overwhelming.
"No Place on Earth" had its premier in Germany at the 19th Jewish Film Festival in Berlin, www.jffb.de and is showing in cinemas from May 9th 2013
Please also read the AVIVA-Berlin review on No Place on Earth
National Geographic Adventure Magazine
The memoirs by Esther Stermer, "We fight to survive", at: www.goodreads.com
Off the Face of the Earth - Peter Lane Taylor