A psychological experiment: try sitting wide awake in total darkness for an hour. Does that sound difficult? Well now imagine doing it for 344 consecutive days. That would mean repeating that hour 8,256 times. How would that change your outlook on the world? Doing it for an hour would be irritating and boring, doing it for two years sounds positively terrifying, especially if you and your family’s lives were at stake. The idea of enduring such an ordeal is unfathomable. And yet 38 people did it because they had no other choice. These were the Jews who escaped the clutches of death by hiding out in Priest’s Grotto cave in western Ukraine. How they did not give into claustrophobia, paranoia and madness is incomprehensible to all but those who suffered through this ordeal? It took a complete mental and physical effort to overcome severe deprivation in an environment that was nearly inhospitable.
The most compelling reason for their survival was that they had a powerful incentive, either stay hidden in the cave or risk almost certain capture and death at the hands of the occupying Nazi forces. With this harsh reality in mind, they decided to stay put. The only question was how long they would have to wait for the war to end. We know now, what they did not know then, that German forces would be pushed out of the area in mid-1944. Of course, not knowing it must have caused everyone hiding in the cave to question whether their confinement would ever come to an end. It would, but the experience they had inside the cave was bound to live on with them. Thanks to caver Christos Nicola their story would gain a new life over half a century later.
On The Inside – Waiting Out The War
Priest’s Grotto sounds like the name of a monastic site and in a sense it was. The Jews who came there were on a pilgrimage, one based around survival. Once inside, many never saw the light of day. Those who did leave the cave, did so while searching for provisions to keep the entire group alive. Thus, the 38 people in the cave were in an unenviable position. Those “lucky” enough to surface and see the light of day were risking their lives. Meanwhile, those inside Priest’s Grotto waited until the Germans were gone. In the meantime, they slept, whispered and waited. Time had a different meaning, as it expanded into infinity. Miraculously, the group was able to keep count of the days and celebrate Yom Kippur despite the hardships they had to endure. The will to survive was strong enough to overcome the many barriers the Jews faced.
Everyone hiding in the cave learned to read the rocks with their hands, a sort of natural braille written in stone. This allowed them to navigate their way around in total darkness. A password system was also devised to allow entry. Getting into the cave was extremely difficult, to the point that many of the Jews thought there was no way they could bring themselves to take the initial plunge. Nonetheless, they overcame their fears when forced to consider what awaited them if they did not hide in Priest’s Grotto. There was another difficulty for anyone entering the cave, they had to give a password and if it was wrong, a man with an axe was to strike at their dangling legs as they tried to enter.
Once inside, day to day life in the cave was difficult at the best of times. Fortunately, tools could be fashioned out of implements such as railroad spikes, walls were built, and a ventilation system devised to make sure smoke did not suffocate anyone. Fending off hypothermia took a great deal of forethought, since cave temperatures were on average, 50 degrees with 90% humidity. The system of organization was ingenious, as it was able to accommodate everyone in an age range which ran from a two-year child to an elderly seventy-five year old. Success was never assured until the Germans could be pushed out of the area. The sounds of explosions grew ever nearer in 1944. The front was moving from east to west, the opposite direction from the initial German invasion. Inside the cave, the Jews listened acutely, trying to distinguish between German and Soviet artillery fire. The wait must have been excruciating.
Traces of Humanity – Bringing It All Back Home
The Jews who lived in Priest’s Grotto finally were able to safely surface when they found a message left for them by a villager that the Germans had finally been pushed out of the area. The survivors left the cave, but they also left artifacts of their time inside. These traces of relatively recent human habitation were discovered by Christos Nicola, a New Yorker who was keen on exploring the Giant Gypsum Cave system after the Iron Curtain fell. He went on what would eventually be a successful hunt for survivors. Once he had located the first one, Sol Wexler, he was led to many others, including the Stermer family which had survived intact. Nicola was a man obsessed by the survivors’ stories. He wanted to do something more to honor their incredible triumph, this would include creation of a book and film to popularize the story.
The rarity of the story was one of the reasons for widespread interest. Of those who did manage to somehow survive the Holocaust, only a minute minority did it in a cave and all of those were in Priest’s Grotto. Hope had triumphed over adversity. The survivors never gave up, just as Nicola never gave up in his search to find them. Nicola helped organize an expedition to the cave in 1994, where some of the survivor’s younger kin could visit Priest’s Grotto. An article in National Geographic Adventurer magazine, along with a documentary brought notoriety to the survivors and most importantly, recognition of what they had endured. In one lifetime, the Jews in Priest’s Grotto had gone from being hunted to hidden to acclaimed. They did not seek the latter, but the spotlight sought them. By helping cast a light on the darkness that had once engulfed their lives, Nicola offered the world a window not only into a cave, but the very essence of hope, faith and deliverance.