Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Hiding in Caves

Sometimes it seems like there are connections between everything I encounter. On Sunday we went to the Yom HaShoah Holocaust Commemoration in Minneapolis. The speaker at the event was Christos Nicola, co-author with Peter Lane Taylor of the Secret of Priest’s Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story.

Nicola related the story of 38 people who survived the Holocaust hidden in a network of caves in the Borshchiv Raion within western Ukraine. Priest’s Grotto is actually one of the longest caves in the world with 77 miles of passages that have been explored. He put up a map of the region and there was Kamenetz-Podolsk, just 25 miles away. Last month when we drove to Kamenetz, the ancestral town of one set of my grandparents, our guide had pointed out Borshchiv as we passed and mentioned the story.

Nicola, a cave explorer, first discovered the cave and heard stories from local residents about Jews hiding in the caves. After ten years of searching he finally found a member of the family who had survived in the caves now living just blocks from him in New York. Relying on a memoir written by the matriarch of the family in 1960 as well as recollections from family members, he went back to the cave to document the existence of the family within the cave. His efforts were underwritten and reported by National Geographic. Some of the family members, from toddlers to a woman over 70, had resided there for 344 continuous days, the longest instance on record of uninterrupted cave living.

Nicola talked of their survival without any of the equipment and clothing that is commonly used by cavers today. They basically learned how to survive in this new environment. They tunneled to create an escape route which they had to use when they were discovered in the first cave. In the second cave they found a natural lake, learned how to dry the moisture on the walls and adapted to living in darkness.

Several family members who survived were killed by Ukrainians after the war had ended. Most of the family immigrated to the US and Canada.

To learn more you can find an interview on NPR and read the article in National Geographic’s Adventure magazine.


  1. Interesting post. It's hard for me to believe that they were killed by Ukrainians post-war. I'll have to click on your link.

  2. Unfortunately that wasn't uncommon. It is one of the reason so many people immigrated to other countries post-war. At the same time there were local Ukrainians who helped them while they were hiding also.