No Place on Earth (2012)
-reviewed by Arielle Rothbard
Last Friday, on opening day for Janet Tobias’ No Place on Earth, I had several presuppositions upon entering the theater. I imagined that the film would be solely narrative, being that the events were over seventy years old. I expected the first showing to be well attended. I assumed No Place on Earth would follow the obligatory, self-explanatory path of Holocaust cinema. Despite a small turnout, the distinctive film delivered.
It put dynamite to my assumptions. No Place on Earth whisked the handful of us viewers out of our San Francisco seats onto a New York City subway train where Chris Nicola, a New York native, explained his love for spelunking (exploring caves) and his incredible discovery in Western Ukraine in 1993. He found a cave in which 38 Jews hid for a year and a half while one million of their lantzmen who were slaughtered. The film glides between Nicola’s cave exploration, several surviving members of the Wexler and Stermer clans, and a cinematic rendition of their memories of cave life. “We didn’t tell it to others because it was just too incredible,” one of the daughters recalled. It’s a life on the edge of reason.
The vignettes of hardship and tragedy in their underground fortress were artfully presented. The family recreated their home in the worst of circumstances. Close ups of bedrooms and food preparation tools dimly lit by candle conveyed the warmth of strong familial love. Esther Stermer, the maternal rock, is not dissuaded even when carried off by German soldiers, craftily escaping their grasp and regrouping with her children. Somehow, despite their abysmal situation, this crew of survivors—ranging from two to 76 years old—reached freedom just as their last drops of water dissolved. They were part of the five percent or fewer who survived the Germans in their country.
This tenacious band endured German forces bent on carrying them off to death camps and neighbors who wouldn’t assist them and even attacked their hiding place. Passively, the group endured derelict conditions. They were without adequate light, food, warmth, water, and filled with fear. Their psyches were beaten down. Chris Nicola noted that even the most decorated cavers with the most advanced technology and tools, would be hard-pressed to make it as long as these Ukrainian Jews. No one holds a similar record. Nor, it seems, would they want to.
After watching the re-enactment of each unique instance of miraculous intervention, I had one thought that neither the survivors nor the film addressed. How could a cave, a natural structure in which this band took shelter, have had the supernatural power to sustain them? Why is the cave anthropomorphized and praised for their survival? What did the one Yom Kippur service they held mean to them, if nothing but a day to willingly choose self-deprivation? God’s intervention went unacknowledged, especially at the end of the film as the elderly survivors retraced their steps in the Priest’s Grotto Cave—the second of their two inhabitances—with their American grandchildren. The 91-year-old survivors literally thank the cave for keeping them alive.
Arguably, the participants of this miracle experienced such immense adversity as to lose all hope in anything but their own inventiveness. However, as an outside viewer, much as in the story of the biblical Esther, I see something else. In this, another true story of Jewish survival despite all odds, God must have interfered with the forces at work to preserve his people. During this season of remembrance, I could not help but notice the parallel between Esther Stermer’s resolute fervor for her charges and the fearlessly faithful love of God for his chosen people.