June 02, 2004

The Darkest Days

Amritas links to an astounding story of a group of 38 Jews who hid from the Nazis in caves – in one cave for half a year, until they were discovered, and in the second cave for 344 days.

The Darkest Days:

The millstone really struck me. I am in my 50s but pretty strong, and I couldn't even move it. Yet Nissel Stermer carried it on his back for three or four miles. That millstone was their life. They used it to grind grain to make bread, which was the main part of their diet. Nissel must have gotten a lot of strength from his family. I think it's like the stories about mothers, full of adrenaline, gaining superhuman strength to lift cars or bend metal to save their children. Nissel knew this millstone would save his entire family. That hit me like a brick wall.

Off the Face of the Earth:

Zaida Stermer, his wife, Esther, and their six children dug up their last remaining possessions from behind their house, loaded their wagons with food and fuel, and, just before midnight, quietly fled into the darkness. Traveling with them were nearly two dozen neighbors and relatives, all fellow Jews who, like the Stermers, had so far survived a year under the German occupation of their homeland. Their destination, a large cave about five miles to the north, was their last hope of finding refuge from the Nazis' intensifying roundups and mass executions of Ukrainian Jews.

The dirt track they rode on ended by a shallow sinkhole, where the Stermers and their neighbors unloaded their carts, descended the slope, and squeezed through the cave's narrow entrance. In their first hours underground, the darkness around them must have seemed limitless. Navigating with only candles and lanterns, they would have had little depth perception and been able to see no more than a few feet. They made their way to a natural alcove not far from the entrance and huddled in the darkness. As the Stermers and the other families settled in for that first night beneath the cold, damp earth, there was little in their past to suggest that they were prepared for the ordeal ahead.

No Jew survived the Holocaust without an amazing (and usually tragic) story. I could fill up a whole blog linking to them. But this one has personal angle, which is why I’m linking to it. The caves are near the town of Korol√≥wka, Ukraine. If you follow the link and zoom out one level (to level 5), you can see on the left a town called Kolomyja – the birthplace of my paternal grandfather. On the right is a town called Dunaivci – the birthplace of my maternal grandfather. (The names my grandfathers used are Kolomeya and Dinavitz.) With 38 people in that cave, it is more than likely that one knew a relative of mine – or even, perhaps, was one of them.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at June 2, 2004 10:35 AM
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