Janet Tobias notes that one reason she was drawn to the unbelievable subject of her newest documentary was that it depicted a real-life heaven and hell reversal. The earth’s surface became a habitat for monsters, while the underworld became the only refuge for innocent victims. It’s an apt metaphor for the tale of a group of 38 Ukrainian Jews who, during WWII, descended into underground caves and hid from the pursuing Nazis for nearly a year and half. The environment was one like No Place On Earth – the film’s ominous title.
Tobias undertook to interview the living survivors of the ordeal, who today reside in the U.S. and Canada. The oldest, Sol Wexler, is 92. Tobias recalls Wexler rushing her during the making of the film, saying, “Hurry up! I’m 90 years old! You’ve got to hurry up!” And she admits that the unique circumstance created a more imminent deadline. “I would think, he’s kind of right. At 70, you don’t really get to say that, but at 90, you can kind of say that” – a statement that holds true for the endangered population of Holocaust survivors worldwide. “I wanted to honor them as the last of the people who will be able to say, ‘It happened to me.’ Twenty years ago, people sort of said it, but now it’s actually true,” she says. Indeed, Tobias’ subjects were only children during their time in the caves. The youngest, Sima Dodyk, now 75, was only 4 years old when they made their initial descent.
Realizing that time was of the essence, Tobias made the practical decision to film the interviews with her subjects last. Her first priority was to fly all of them to the Ukraine, along with their grandchildren, to revisit the caves for the first time since they emerged so many years ago. In a touching moment in the film, the survivors request for the lights in the cave to be extinguished in order to recreate the dark, damp atmosphere they remember. Sima’s sister, Sonia, told Tobias, “I feel safe in the dark.”
But though they feel safe now, the group’s security while residing in the caves was precarious at best. Young male leaders had to leave the cave to steal food from nearby farms, or else rely on the welfare of friends who would stop by as often as they could. Some group members were lost along the way, including during one tragic incident when Nazis shot and killed some, but spared other witnesses.
Tobias says that she has, to some degree, distanced herself from the material out of emotional necessity, but the gravity of the stories can come crashing down without warning. “I see Sima… This really happened to her when she was four years old. She laid down, in a pit, in a grave, and people shot above her head and two people were shot next to her.” Most of the subjects are remarkably well adjusted, but others are still delicate. Wexler, who lost his mother and brother during a cave raid, is “not okay,” according to Tobias. “With him, I was much more conscious of it. It was important to get the information from him, but … he has nightmares to this day,” she says.
Despite the unthinkably dark subject matter, the experience of the film is uplifting overall, promising that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, and that people working together can defy the odds. Tobias says, “I take away that all of us can make a difference in times of genocide or war or great tragedy by doing our part… You can’t ever stop it entirely, but you can prevent it from being a genocide by saying, ‘I will help this person. I will help my friend.'”
Certainly, the survivors themselves have been able to extract positivity from their experience. Asked about the role of religion in the subjects’ lives today, Tobias marvels that most are still practicing. “To me, if you survive a holocaust or a genocide, it would be natural to question the existence of God,” she ponders. But Sima, the most orthodox of the group, is undeterred in her faith. She has explained to Tobias that even though she harbors questions, to her it only means that when she finally meets God, they will have plenty to discuss.
Perhaps it was this quality of optimism that led the group to safety. Tobias surmises, “I think that faith was extremely important. Faith in family, faith in friendship, faith in the ability to somehow find goodness in all the horror… Out of darkness really can come light. And if you give up, then there’s no chance.”