‘No Place on Earth’ Sheds New Light on Remembering the Holocaust

Five Ukrainian Jewish families lived underground—literally—for 18 months to escape Nazi troops. Director Janet Tobias on what their survival means today.

Saul and Sam Stermer, old men with helmets inside a cave

Sam and Saul Stermer revisit the Verteba Cave in Ukraine where they once hid from the Nazis for a year-and-a-half in Janet Tobias' documentary No Place on Earth. (Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

When No Place on Earth producer-director Janet Tobias was first approached to make a film about a cave explorer named Chris Nicola, who had stumbled upon the history of five Ukranian Jewish families who survived World War II by literally hiding out underground for a year-and-a-half, she was reluctant to be the one to tell the tale. She felt there were simply “too many great Holocaust dramas and docs” already out there.

But beyond being moved by what she calls “the most incredible human adventure survival story I’d ever heard,” the entwined family histories touched a nerve for the veteran 60 Minutes and Frontline producer that she never could have predicted.

“We are all better as a team than individually,” says Tobias. “It takes a combination of us to do anything great, and I should know that, because film crews are not about solo activities, but it reminded me. It took our village and our team to tell the story, and it is the bonds of family and friendship that make a lot of things possible.”

Even so, while watching No Place on Earth, which is currently in theaters and available on VOD, it’s difficult to imagine how the five clans comprising 38 people total, as close as they were, accomplished what they did. Shrouded in darkness and enduring stifling humidity for 18 months, the families formed a resilient community that could only listen as they heard the Russians fighting the Germans above, fighting below to avoid starvation and to keep up morale.

“Killing in war will never stop, but genocide can stop. We can make it stop with us. Most of us aren’t saints, but we can reach out to our friend or to our family member to make a difference.”

The film flashes back and forth between modern-day testimonials from those who lived through the experience and continue on to this day, such as Saul and Sam Stermer and their nieces Sonia and Sima Dodyk, and reenactments that give a sense of the incredible odds they faced.

“These are the last eyewitnesses. In 10 to 15 years, there will be no more,” Tobias tells TakePart. “That won’t be by choice. There will only be [scripted] dramas. So I felt like we had a unique chance. You don’t need to embellish the facts here. The facts are just incredible.”

Tobias can’t emphasize enough that No Place on Earth is a story that shouldn’t be relegated to the past. Unusual in that it is a rare piece of Holocaust era history that has a happy outcome, the plight of the underground clans also serves as a testament that individuals can create their own change, no matter what the circumstances.

“Killing in war will never stop,” Tobias says. “But genocide can stop. We can make it stop with us. Most of us aren’t saints, but we can reach out to our friend or to our family member to make a difference. One person helped save 38 people who now have over 148 children and grandchildren; so it’s a ripple effect—what you do individually will ripple out in life. That matters today in questions of genocide or in questions of violence. It’s not just history; it’s today.”

Can genocide be stopped, and how can that be done? Talk it out in COMMENTS.

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