In docudrama, resourceful Ukrainian Jews hide in caves, outlast Nazis

Most Holocaust survival stories that have been adapted for movies, from “Schindler’s List” to last year’s “In Darkness,” feature a righteous, mendacious or conflicted non-Jew whose help is essential.

“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, because no one stepped forward to help.

A tense, engrossing and extraordinarily well-produced docudrama, “No Place on Earth” opens Friday, April 12 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema and the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood. The History Channel will broadcast the film at some future date.

Sam Stermer (from left), Gustav Stibranyi, Saul Stermer and Norbert Danko outside of the cave where the Stermers hid for nearly two years. photo/courtesy of magnolia pictures

The middle-age 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 for taking one’s fate into one’s own hands, the matriarch led some 28 people — from toddlers to septuagenarians — into a vast, unexplored cave in October of 1942 with beds, pillows and food. They stayed underground for nearly two years.

Esther’s memoir, “We Fight to Survive,” provides the dramatic core of “No Place on Earth.” Director Janet Tobias interweaves re-enactments of events and moments from the memoir with the present-day recollections of a handful of elderly survivors of the harrowing years underground.

As is typical in real life, the tale twists and corkscrews, and it’s hard to keep the protagonists and even the chronology straight. But the filmmaking is sufficiently strong and the stakes so self-evident that we’re not stymied by unclear details.

On the contrary, we’re riveted by depictions of nocturnal forays aboveground for food, or the theft of a millstone to grind flour, or a sleigh built to transport necessities 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 percent of western Ukraine’s Jews, 1.5 million people, were killed.)

While chopping and gathering wood in the forest one day, a few of the younger men encounter a non-Jewish classmate they had known years earlier. Should they kill him to protect the fact that they’re hiding nearby, or trust him to not betray them?

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 imagine, and experience, something of what it must have been like to hide, strategize, cooperate, bicker and wonder what kind of world the group would return to one day.

The survivors’ emergence from the cave at the end of the war to a bulwark of silence from their former neighbors — who ignored the plight of the Jews, profited from them and/or betrayed them — provides an appropriate conclusion. But the film inexplicably tacks on a present-day epilogue in which two of the survivors return to the cave with their respective grandchildren in a kind of happy ending.

“No Place on Earth” is book-ended by amateur spelunker Chris Nicola, a friendly New Yorker who came across inexplicable evidence of human habitation in the cave in 1993. He sought information about the

mystery and eventually solved it, locating some of the survivors. He then 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” opens Friday, April 12 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema in S.F. and Rialto Cinemas Elmwood. In English, German and Yiddish with English subtitles. (PG-13, 84 minutes)