The docudrama "No Place on Earth" begins with Chris Nicola of queens. In 2003 he was exploring a cave in western Ukraine when he discovered signs that someone had lived in this pitch-black world many decades before.
Through the Internet he found out that in 1942 grandmother Ester Stermer led 37 other family members, all Ukrainian Jews, into these caves to hide from the Nazi extermination. They lived in nearly total darkness in a dank underground for 511 days, sleeping 20 hours a day, using potatoes as candles. At night men would forage, steal and buy food, which was never enough.
Sonia Dodyk, who now lives on Long Island, was 8 when her family escaped into these different caves to live, her grandmother said, like rats. But she was overjoyed.
"We were very very happy to be in the cave because we were masters of our own destiny," Dodyk said. "No peasant would come in the middle of the night and say edeh, go!"
Nazis did find one cave, and Ukrainian peasants buried the entrance to it. After digging for three days the Ukrainian Jews escaped and found another cave after following a fox while with one peasant who helped them.
Janet Tobias, the film's director and cowriter, said there is a lesson for all here: These cave dwellers survived because of strength, ingenuity and the help of a few good people.
"That's also how you stop genocide in the modern world is one person at a time," Tobias said. "One person takes a cousin in, one person in the forest gives information."
"Our story is a story of survival and of hope and of not giving up," Dodyk said.
Dodyk added that because at 14 she scrambled her way to America, this land of opportunity, she prospered.
"No Place on Earth" premiers this weekend.