Caves of Salvation

Ukrainian Jews Survived Holocaust in Underground Grottos

The Ceiling of the Priest's Grotto

hide captionAmerican caver Chris Nicola looks up at the name "Stermer" in candle-smoke graffiti on a cave wall.

As Ukrainian Jews in 1942, the Stermer family knew they faced a grim fate at the hands of advancing Nazis. To stay alive, they decided to go underground — literally — living in a labyrinth of local caves for over a year.

Thirty-eight people huddled together in the "Priest's Grotto," where they learned to eat, sleep and survive in near total darkness. The horrors of the Holocaust continued right over their heads. Entrances to the cave were sealed time and again and food was brought in from rare forays above ground.

Finally, the signal came: a message inside a bottle lowered down a chimney-like entrance to the grotto by their connection to the outside world. The Germans had left and Russian troops were entering their small Ukrainian village.

NPR's Scott Simon talks to surviving family members, now living in Montreal, and with Chris Nicola, the American caver who unearthed their inspiring tale.

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