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The Holocaust And One Family's Amazing Story Of Survival

For the past 26 years, Chantelle has been a mom to a son with autism. Creating a happy life for her family makes her heart sing.

Jewish boy arrested by Nazis

Jewish boy arrested by Nazis

Germany Invades Ukraine

The Ukraine was invaded by Nazi forces on June 22, 1941. Incendiary bombs were dropped on Kiev, Odessa and Lviv as Nazi forces surged into the Ukraine on their way east to Moscow. Initially encountering little resistance, many Ukrainians regarded the Nazis as liberators, freeing them from the oppressive Soviet regime. What many did not realize at the time was that Hitler considered the Ukrainians to be subhuman and intended to exterminate them to make room for the growth of the Reich and the German people.

Initially, Herman Goring planned to kill every Ukrainian man over the age of 15. As almost 4,000,000 Nazis forces were stationed at the Eastern Front, pragmatics won over politics and thousands of Ukrainians were deported to Germany as slave labor. Given only starvation rations and the crudest of shelter, thousands died from starvation, exposure and simply being worked to death. In all, 10,000,000 out of 40,000,000 Ukrainians died during World War II.

The hiding place

The hiding place

The Best Laid Plans

In the small town of Kurolowka, Ukraine lived 500 Jews. Two of its residents, Esther and Zaide Stermer, read of the destruction and terror the Nazis wrought upon the Jews during Kristallnacht on November 9th and 10th, 1938. Fearing increasing retribution against the Jews, they decide to flee to safety and secure passage and visas to move to Canada with their six children. They sell all their possessions. The day before they are to leave, Nazi Germany invades Poland. They are trapped.

All Yids of the city of Kiev and its vicinity must appear on Monday, September 29, by 8 o'clock in the morning at the corner of Mel'nikova and Dorohozhytska streets (near the Viis'kove cemetery). Bring documents, money and valuables, and also warm clothing, linen, etc. Any Yids who do not follow this order and are found elsewhere will be shot. Any civilians who enter the dwellings left by Yids and appropriate the things in them will be shot.

— Order posted in Kiev around September 26

Einzatsgruppe Shooting

Einzatsgruppe Shooting

The Slaughter Begins

Babi Yar, a ravine outside Kiev is famous as the site of a series of massacres against Jews and committed by the feared Einsatzgruppen. Between 100,000 and 150,000 jewish men, women, children, the elderly and disabled were murdered here. The single largest "aktion" (killing) took place on September 29-30, 1941 resulting in the agonizing deaths of approximately 33,000 people. Despite screams of terror, the terrified cries of children, the anguished begging of mothers to save their baby, and the agonizing sounds of the undead (many of whom died being crushed by bodies in the pit and not by bullet wound), the SS never wavered from their mission of death.

Jews being deported via cattle cars

Jews being deported via cattle cars

The Round Up

While many Jews were being systematically murdered at Babi Yar, the citizens of Kurolowka were ordered to register and pack one suitcase for their "new life" in the ghetto. Esther, the matriarch of the Stermer family refused to go saying, "if we go to the ghetto, we die." Esther sent her oldest son, Nissel, to scout out 6 hiding places for all members of the family. As the round up began, the family was hunkered down in bunkers in barns all over the village praying not to be found.

By 1942, the Nazis started to systematically go house to house, looking for the hidden and killing the hosts. It was now very clear that anyone found would be sent to Belzec and certain death. Nissel was sent once again to find a suitable hiding place for the entire extended family. He succeeded and on October 20th, 1943, 28 people enter Verteba cave with food, candles, kerosene, water, and straw. Bedding was made from boards and they also brought pillows and covers.

Nissel and his father, Zaide, bribed the Ukrainian police and obtained permits to continue working in town. They collected and sold scrap metal and were able to bring food and news of the outside world to their family in the cave. When news came that there were rumors peasants were in the cave, the family moved even farther back to escape detection.

Members of the Nazi SS and their victims

Members of the Nazi SS and their victims


With whisperings of impending capture, Saul, an older son, was sent to find a means of escape from the cave. If the Nazis sealed the cave entrance, they would surely die, as their food supplies were dangerously low and the only interior source of water, drippings from the cave ceiling, would surely prove to be inadequate.

Armed with only candles, Saul, and his cousin, Sam, searched for an escape route from the cave. With poor visibility and hindered by slippery, sticky mud, they found an area of dry earth and started to dig. Soon they could see a shaft of light and realized they had found a natural exit filled with dirt. Unfortunately, the shaft was more vertical than horizontal and was 50 feet long and would be far too challenging for young children and elderly adults. So Nissel stole a heavy chain from a local farmer which they then secured to the rock allowing everyone a chance at survival.

It was April 5, 1943 when shouts of "Rouse! Rouse!" pierced their solitude. They had been found. Terror and confusion reigned as the family members scattered, looking for the exit or a place to hide. Five family members were captured and the rest managed to escape out the exit and into the relative safety of the forest. With no real safe place to go, they quietly crawled back into the village and hid in barns and waited. But for what?

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Ukrainian Stamp during World War II

Ukrainian Stamp during World War II

Deal With The Devil

The Nazis had turned all five prisoners over to the Ukrainian police. The price to free each prisoner would require not only gold, but a body to replace the prisoners. Zaide did indeed produce 5 bodies: two men, two women and one child. Where and how he came up with the bodies we will never know.

As a condition of their release, the Ukrainian officer had them lie down in a field where he would fire a gun over their heads as if they were being executed. Sadly, he shot two of the prisoners, fearing they would be recognized in town and put his own life in peril.

Priest's Grotto

On May 5, 1943 a new cave is found. Priest's Grotto was accessed from a hole in the ground that led to a shaft that you would slide down. At this point they had lost everything. The money was gone and so was the food. However, Priests Grotto provided something they desperately needed: a place to hide and water.

At this point then entire family, all 38 of them, were living in the cave. Neither Nissel or Zaide could safely work and were forced to steal food at night while their family members prayed for their safe return. Angry villagers found the entrance to their cave and filled it with dirt. It took them 3 days and nights to clear it out.

By December, 1943 things looked grim. They hadn't left the cave for two months, fearing the worst. There was nothing to burn for light, so they slept most of their days. But by the end of December, action needed to be taken. Their underground water supply was starting to dry up and they desperately needed some way to replace it. It wasn't until March, 1944, that Sam, who had drawn "the short stick" exited the cave only to find they were caught between the Germans and the advancing Russian army. The waiting game continued.

Safe At Last

April 12, 1944, a note on a string was dropped into the cave. The Russian army had beat back the Germans and they were free. Free to feel the warmth of the sun on their faces, to walk through the meadow without fear of death, and to pick up the shattered pieces of their lives.

Life under the Communist regime after the war was hard, and the entire Stermer family left the Ukraine in 1946 for a displaced person's camp in Germany. Shortly thereafter they immigrated to Canada and the US settling in New York and Montreal.

Today, the descendants of the original 38 number 125 and are living safe, happy, productive lives in their adopted nations.

© 2015 Chantelle Porter


Chantelle Porter (author) from Ann Arbor on January 21, 2016:

It is incomprehensible what some people have had to go through to stay alive. We are so blessed here in the US.

Besarien from South Florida on January 21, 2016:

This hub made me cry. What an amazing survival story.

Chantelle Porter (author) from Ann Arbor on January 12, 2016:

Thank you for stopping by. It does seem like history just keeps repeating itself, sadly.

Farawaytree on January 12, 2016:

This was a very well written and nicely laid out hub. This subject never ceases to amaze with it's utter brutality and the absolute chill left behind when you imagine human being being treated in this way.

As you say, it does not appear we have learned much from this atrocity, as similar events continue to happen in a variety of countries.

Chantelle Porter (author) from Ann Arbor on November 17, 2015:

Thank you for the catch. With recent events it doesn't seemed like we've learned much. Glad you enjoyed the article.

A N Onymous from Wherever there is sincere fun and friendship being shared. on November 16, 2015:

You missed this one: "on October 20th, 1948, 28 people enter Verteba cave".

The Holocaust still has many lessons to teach us, and many other lessons we must never forget. Modern day Israel is not even a safe place. May God preserve it according to its people's righteousness.

Chantelle Porter (author) from Ann Arbor on October 24, 2015:

It is amazing, isn't it? We take so much for granted.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on October 24, 2015:

Lives of horror such as these are never forgotten, but it certainly shows how people's will to live shines through against all adversity.

Chantelle Porter (author) from Ann Arbor on October 23, 2015:

Lolly - Thank you so much! I'm glad you enjoyed it. I thought their story was so fascinating.

Laurel Johnson from Washington KS on October 23, 2015:

What a tremendous hub!! You captured the intensity of the times with great skill. Well done!!

Chantelle Porter (author) from Ann Arbor on October 14, 2015:

I thought their story was amazing, too. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

drbj and sherry from south Florida on October 14, 2015:

This is a fantastic story, Chantelle, and you told it well. I hung on your every word. It is unbelievable what these people endured and survived to have descendants.

Chantelle Porter (author) from Ann Arbor on October 13, 2015:

RTalloni - I think I may have seen him on TV but did not know there was a book. I'm going to check at the library for that one.

FBT- It is hard to believe how anyone can live in a cave for so long. I feel really soft sitting here in my cushy chair watching TV. Ha!

Thank you both for stopping by.

Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on October 13, 2015:

Amazing story, Chantelle - hard to believe anyone can survive in such circumstances. Thanks for sharing.

RTalloni on October 12, 2015:

Thank you for sharing the story of these lives. Highlighting their journey for others to learn from is important work.

I just recently learned of the French priest Patrick Desbois and his efforts to document the unreported systematic executions and mass graves of Jewish populations. Witnesses who have never been able to speak of the horrors have finally been able to express their pain and grief, and for some, even their guilt.

Desbois' journey began in Ukraine. His team uncovered and documented more than 800 extermination sites, far more than what were reported. His book is "The Holocaust by Bullets" and the documentation is incredibly heartbreaking, but crucial to truth.

Chantelle Porter (author) from Ann Arbor on October 12, 2015:

I am so glad you liked it. I thought their story was amazing.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on October 12, 2015:

What a wonderful story Chantelle. It had me hanging on every word. I am so glad that 38 survived to have 125 descendents to date. A tale of true bravery.

Chantelle Porter (author) from Ann Arbor on October 12, 2015:

Thanks for stopping by. I'm not sure I could last a weekend in a cave let alone 511 days!

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on October 12, 2015:

What a story and not that very long ago. May justice be theirs very soon.

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