‘No Place on Earth’ uncovers survivors’ remarkable underground feat

Chris Nicola in ‘No Place on Earth’

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

 “No Place on Earth” gives new meaning to the phrase “going underground.” This beautifully-shot, polished film tells of the discovery of two caves, where 38 Jewish people hid out during World War II for 18 months, 344 days, a record for continuous days underground.

Part adventure tale, part mystery, “No Place on Earth” is an untold tale of underground survival, an inspiring story of living through the Shoah.

The story itself comes to light in a documentary that runs on two tracks. One thread focuses on caver Chris Nicola trying to unravel the mystery of objects discovered in two Ukrainian caves – who lived there and what became of them. The other is a re-creation of the harrowing experiences of five Jewish families, mostly young people, who took shelter there and eventually emerged from hiding after the Shoah.

The film includes interviews with some of the survivors, who were children at the time, and a return to the cave that sheltered them. It is an amazing tale of resourcefulness, determination and courage, and makes for an engrossing, inspiring film.

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Although a documentary, it evokes two other survivors’ tales told in recent narrative films, “In Darkness” and “Defiance,” both of which take place in Eastern Europe near the Polish-Russian boarder.  Like “In Darkness,” which is about Polish Jews hiding in the sewers, this story takes place in a dark and cramped space. But skillful direction and lighting never leave the audience in the dark about what is happening, while still capturing the claustrophobic feeling of confined space and damp, rocky walls. Like “Defiance,” this is a tale of young, resourceful men – teenagers, actually – whose boldness and ingenuity allow others to survive, a heroic tale of adventure and daring.

The Jewish Light recently interviewed both caver Nicola and producer Rafael Marmor when the two were in St. Louis for a preview screening at Plaza Frontenac. The invitation-only screening was co-sponsored by Maryville University and St. Louisan Marilyn Spirt, who is also Marmor’s aunt.

Marmor is an Orthodox Jew and Nicola is Eastern Orthodox Christian. Nicola originally intended to research his own roots when he went to explore caves in Russia. But when he unearthed a different story, it eventually transformed his feelings about the Shoah.

While exploring one of Ukraine’s gypsum caves, known as Verteba, Nicola came across something unexpected, an old shoe, and other evidence of prolonged human habitation. In fact, this cave was the first of two that sheltered 38 Jews, many of them children, during the long Nazi occupation of the area. The second cave, Priest’s Grotto, is the 10th longest cave in the world but was undiscovered when the five families hid in it during WWII.

Caving can appeal to one’s sense of adventure but sometime it reveals other things, as one crew member discovered. “He said, ‘The funny thing was I didn’t know I was claustrophobic until I got in the cave,’” Nicola recalled.

Shooting a film in a cave also presented other challenges for the crew.

“I’m not a filmmaker,” Nicola said. “Going through confined spaces is fine with me. I felt sorry for the sound people and the cameramen, what they had to go through. I’ve done that, not with cameras but on expeditions, carrying these huge backpacks and transportation bags through the cave. It was a pleasure going caving this time and having other people carry my equipment.”            

Nicola wrote a book about the experience, “The Secret of Priest’s Grotto – A Holocaust Survival Story,” along with Peter Lane Taylor, a National Geographic photographer. The story was featured in National Geographic Adventure magazine, which led to the film project.

Producer Marmor said the film’s director, Janet Tobias, approached him because she was familiar with his work.  “She talked to me for about five minutes about what the story was and we very quickly had a similar vision of how we could really bring it to life. We just kind of hit the ground running at that point,” Marmor explained.  “A&E and the History Channel came on board very quickly and then a network in the U.K., and then we got a German network on board, so the funding was coming together and we just got it going.”

Rather than a narrative film, as was done for “In Darkness” and “Defiance,” the filmmakers decide to use the documentary format, but with actors recreating some of the experiences.

“There were definitely discussions about narrative, or doc-narrative. But I think once you meet the survivors, and you meet Chris, you realize very quickly that you want them to be a part of telling the story,” Marmor said.

“The problem was re-creations in the documentary,” Marmor continued, describing how they are often poorly done — something Marmor and Tobias wanted to avoid. “That we struggled with, figuring out really how to make the re-enactments epic, and really fit the story and how big the story was,” Marmor added.

When asked about some of the challenges in filming, he noted bringing all of the camera equipment — and the survivors, who ranged in age from 75 to 91 — into the confined spaces of the caves, which are located in remote areas of Ukraine.

The first cave is open to tourists but the second can only be entered through a vertical shaft 31-feet deep.

“Once you get down this tube, you have to, not crawl, but crouch for another hundred feet, where it is no more that three feet high and [going] through half a foot of water,” Marmor continued.

While on location, Marmor discovered a personal connection to where the story took place — his maternal grandparents happened to be from two different towns that were within about 20 miles of where this story took place.

“I hired a car one day and I went to both of these towns. In one of them, any Jewish remnants were completely gone,” he said. “The other one, I was able to find the Jewish cemetery and we found the last name Spirt but my mom didn’t recognize the first name. That obviously added a whole new layer of meaning for me.”