The Jews of Verteba Cave

Jul 3, 2024 1 comments

In the early 1940s, when the Nazi government began systematically hunting down Jewish people, many Jews across Europe sought refuge to avoid deportation and death. Some found shelter in the homes of non-Jewish friends, neighbors, or even strangers who were sympathetic to their plight. These hosts risked their lives to hide Jews in attics, basements, closets, or other concealed spaces within their homes. One of the most famous examples is Anne Frank, who, along with her family, hid in a secret annex above her father's business premises in Amsterdam for over two years before being discovered.

The inconspicuous entrance to the Verteba Cave. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Other Jews sought refuge in rural areas, hiding in barns, sheds, or underground bunkers. Many churches and convents also offered sanctuary to Jews. Some Jews hid in forests or caves, relying on the natural environment to stay concealed. They faced harsh living conditions and constant danger from patrols. One such cave is located on the outskirts of Bilche-Zolote village in Ukraine, about 450 km southwest of Kyiv. The Verteba Cave is part of an extensive system of gypsum caves spanning several kilometers of interconnected passageways. The cave has a long history of human occupation dating back 6,000 years, with distinct periods of occupation ranging from 4100 BCE to 2750 BCE. It remained abandoned for more than 4,000 years before becoming a sanctuary for seven families from Bilche-Zolote and the nearby village of Korolivka.

The Jewish communities in and around the city of Borshchiv and near Verteba Cave began settling in the early 18th century. By the end of the 19th century, the villages of the area, which included Korolivka and Bilche-Zolote, were thriving, with a combined population of about 12,000. However, during the Russian occupation of World War I and the Russian Revolution, the Jewish communities in the Borshchiv region suffered from numerous pogroms, leading to a significant decline in their numbers.

The death blow for the Jews in Borshchiv came when the Nazis invaded Ukraine. A ghetto was established in Borshchiv in April 1942, and all remaining Jews in the area were ordered to move into it. As they began looking for a safe hideout, a Jewish doctor from Bilche-Zolote, who was also searching for a suitable place for his family to hide, suggested they move to Verteba Cave.

Reasoning that nobody would look for them there as winter approached, Sol Wexler and his family, along with the doctor's family, moved into the cave on the night of October 28, 1942, bringing their belongings with them. Other families soon joined them, bringing the total number of occupants to 28.

The tunnels inside the Verteba Cave. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

To enter the cave, the fugitives had to slide through the narrow cave mouth on their backsides. Initially, they used ropes to navigate the vast system of tunnels to avoid getting lost, but gradually, they learned their way around. They crafted wooden beds and tables to make it feel more like home. A dental technician even set up a working station in the cave. Initially, light was provided by candles, but these didn’t last long. The residents then created light using small bottles filled with kerosene, lit with a wick. They became nocturnal, sleeping during the day and being active at night.

Each family had a designated person responsible for bringing food and provisions from the outside. Some members had special badges that allowed them relative freedom within the town, which they used to their advantage to sneak supplies into the cave at night. They even obtained a tin stove for cooking, although poor air circulation in the cave meant fumes were a problem. Over time, they found a solution for that too.

Their biggest immediate problem was water. They found places where water dripped from the stalactites and down the walls of the cave, and collected it in small bottles and pots, but it was never enough. It was easier in winter because they could melt snow. There were also other dwellers in the cave, such as bats, which scared the children, and foxes, which stole their food.

One day in 1943, as winter drew to a close, a German soldier noticed some potatoes near the cave entrance, which had fallen out of a bag while supplies were being sneaked in. The Gestapo was informed, and several days later they stormed the cave. Hearing the approaching soldiers, the fugitives moved deeper into the cave. Only eight of the 28 hiding in the cave were caught, and three eventually managed to escape as the Gestapo was leading the prisoners out.

Christos Nicola reading the names written in Polish in Priests Grotto. Photo credit: Haaretz

The remaining cavers abandoned their hideout and roamed for weeks, hiding wherever possible—in bunkers, barns, and with friends. Then a villager pointed them to another cave, in a field that belonged to the parish priest.

This new cave had only one small opening and had to be entered feet first. Inside, it was pitch black. With candlelight, they crawled deeper into the tunnel, which opened into a large hall so high they could hardly see the ceiling. Beyond the hall, they found a large tunnel suitable for their camp. Most importantly, they found underground freshwater lakes and no traces of human habitation. The cave was perfect.

On the night of May 5, 1943, a group of 38 Jews descended into the Priest’s Grotto, which was to be their new home. They brought furniture, down quilts and pillows, fuel, and supplies. Each family settled in different places within the tunnel, designating a spot near the water and far from their sleeping areas for cooking. Unlike Verteba Cave, Priest’s Grotto had better air circulation and ample water, allowing the people to wash their clothes and stay clean. From time to time, some members would venture out to either steal supplies or buy them from friendly farmers. They even stole a millstone and used it to grind grains into flour.

After some months in the Priest’s Grotto, hostile locals discovered the hiding place and filled in the single entrance to the cave with soil, presumably to starve the Jews to death. However, the men dug another exit and created a camouflaged covering for it.

The families stayed in the cave until April 1944, when the land was liberated by the Red Army, allowing them to come out of hiding. After living in the dark for hundreds of days, the sun hurt their eyes. One of the survivors, Pepkala Blitzer, who was a four-year-old girl when she and her family sought shelter in the caves from the Nazis, later recalled how she had completely forgotten about the sun or daylight. When they came out of the cave, Pepkala asked her mother to put out the bright candle because it hurt her eyes too much. She was referring to the sun, which she could not remember having seen.

Bottles found in Verteba Cave. Photo credit: Haaretz

The story of the Jews of the Verteba Cave and Priest’s Grotto was nearly forgotten until 1993, when veteran caver Chris Nicola discovered signs of human habitation and writings on the walls while exploring the caves. Local residents told him about the Jews, but nobody seemed to know what had happened to them. Fascinated, Nicola grew determined to learn how people with no prior caving experience or specialized equipment were able to live in such a hostile environment for so long.

Ten years later, after an extensive search, Nicola located six of the cave survivors, most of them members of the extended Stermer family. By piecing together interviews with the survivors and artifacts they found while in Ukraine, Nicola and writer-photographer Peter Lane Taylor were able to develop a clear picture of the Jews' underground life. Their story was published in 2004 in National Geographic Adventure magazine. In 2007, Nicola also published a children's book telling their tale, The Secret of Priest’s Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story, and in 2013, an 84-minute documentary called No Place on Earth was released.

# How Caves That Have Sheltered People for 6,000 Years Saved Jews From the Holocaust, Haaretz
# The Darkest Days, National Geographic


  1. Not only jewish people, also alot of gipsies, and people apposed to the regime; the practise still up untill today not only in "dictatorial" countries, but verry much in the western world also where people are declared "insane" tucked away, drugged and abused because they have a different view of society..


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