Beneath a large patch of remote farmland in Western Ukraine, lies the Gypsum Giant cave system.
Containing over 127,779 meters of explorable passageways, caves and an underground lake this huge subterranean network is one of the World’s longest cave systems. It was also the life line to 38 Ukrainian Jews escaping the murderous intent of the Nazi occupation during WW2.
Several Jewish families lived for almost a year within the dark and damp underground world; their stay amounting to the longest uninterrupted cave habitation ever known.
In the attempt to conserve fuel and candle light, the families spent the majority of their time in darkness. The cave that became their home (now known as Priest’s Grotto) would often only be illuminated while they cooked.
They suffered considerably, struggling with sensory deprivation, isolation, the threat of starvation and the constant fear that they would be discovered, or that the Nazis would be alerted to their whereabouts by the few individuals that knew where they were hiding.
It wasn’t until nearly a year had passed that they found a message in a bottle that had been thrown into the cave stating that ‘the Germans have already gone’.
Emerging from their underground tomb, one survivor named Pepkala Blitzer, who was only 4 when she went down into the caves, had become so accustomed to the darkness that she had forgotten what the sun looked like.
Pepkala reportedly asked her mother to put out the bright candle as the light hurt so much.
The truth be told, had they not have sought refuge underground the families would have almost certainly been killed. 95% of Jews living in the Ukraine were exterminated during the Holocaust.
The plight of this party of Jews went unheard for decades. The survivors were wary of exposing their hiding place, for fear that a future threat would mean they would need to retreat back into the earth.
The huge underground network also remained unexplored. It wasn’t until caving enthusiasts started to map the subterranean world of the Gypsum Caves in the 1990s that the story of the surviving Jews began to be uncovered.
An American, Christos Nicola was exploring the caves when he discovered evidence of human habitation, and concluded that people must have sought refuge their during World War II.
He spoke to local residents about his discovery, which led him to explore the Priest’s Grotto cave, where he found further evidence of the Jews that had once lived there.
Returning home to Queens, New York, Nicola spent 10 years searching for information about this story, until he was able to locate a survivor whom as fate would have it, lived just a few miles from him in Queens.
This led him to meeting with many of the remaining Jewish survivors, and he began to record their experiences.
The fascinating story of his discovery and search, as well as that of the survivors who lived in these caves, was featured in the June/July 2004 issue of the National Geographic Adventure Magazine.
There is also an award-winning book called ‘The Secret of Priest’s Grotto’, that Nicola co-authored in 2007.