No Place On Earth
Special to the Jewish News
Esther's memoir, We Fight to Survive,
provides the dramatic core of No Place
On Earth — re-enactments of events and
moments that director Janet Tobias inter-
weaves with recollections from a handful
of elderly survivors of the harrowing years
The story, as is typically the case with
real life, twists and corkscrews, and it's
hard to keep the protagonists and even
the chronology straight. But the filmmak-
ing is sufficiently strong and the stakes so
self-evident that we're not stymied by the
On the contrary, we're riveted by depic-
tions of nocturnal forays aboveground for
food, or the theft of a millstone to grind
flour, or a sleigh built to transport neces-
sities in winter, or the terrifying discovery
of the hiding place by a patrol dead-set on
rounding up any remnants of the Jewish
population. (According to the film, 95 per-
cent of western Ukraine's Jews, 1.5 million
people, were killed.)
While chopping and gathering wood in
the forest one day, a couple of the younger
men encounter a non-Jewish classmate
ost Holocaust survival stories
that have been adapted for the
movies, from Schindler's List to
In Darkness, feature a righteous, menda-
cious or conflicted gentile whose help is
A tense, engrossing and extraordinarily
well-produced docudrama, No Place on
Earth recounts the saga of a group of
Ukrainian Jews forced to rely solely on
their own resourcefulness, courage and
stamina. As a result, their travails are both
more inspiring and more infuriating.
The middle-aged Ukrainian Jew Esther
Stermer realized, through instinct or
experience, that obeying orders from the
occupying Nazis or the local police to go to
the town square or the train station with
a suitcase — or moving into a ghetto —
would be a fatal mistake.
A fearless advocate of taking one's fate
into one's own hands, the family matriarch
led some 28 people — from toddlers to
septuagenarians — into a vast, unexplored
cave in October of 1942 with beds, pillows
25% oil Total Bill!
A story of survival.
they knew years ear-
lier. Should they kill
him to protect the fact
that they're hiding
somewhere nearby, or
trust him not to betray
At moments like these, we're so involved
in the drama that it doesn't matter if we
know their names. Indeed, No Place on
Earth is so well done that we readily imag-
ine, and experience, something of what
it must have been like to hide, strategize,
cooperate, bicker and wonder what kind
of world one would be able to return to
The survivors' emergence from the cave
at the end of the war to a wave of silence
from their former neighbors — who
ignored the plight of the Jews, profited
from them and/or betrayed them — pro-
vides a suitably appropriate conclusion.
No Place on Earth is bookended by
amateur spelunker Chris Nicola, a friendly
New Yorker who came across inexplicable
evidence of human habitation in the cave
in 1993. He resolved the mystery by even-
tually locating some of the survivors; he
A scene from No Place on Earth
made their experiences public in an article
in National Geographic.
"Some people are afraid of the dark,"
Nicola says, by way of encouraging viewers
to share his passion for exploring caves.
"There are no monsters down there:'
The documentary reminds us of a time
when monsters operated in plain sight in
broad daylight, with the overt and tacit
approval of ordinary people. Even as we
revel in the survival of the Stermers and
others, we seethe about the Ukrainians
who escaped justice.
No Place on Earth screens at
5 p.m. Monday, May 5, at the
Berman Center in West Bloomfield;
and at 2 p.m. Monday, May 5,
at the Michigan Theater in Ann
Arbor. A discussion with Chris
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April 17 • 2014