Verteba and Priestís Grotto Cave

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The Verteba Cave (Ukrainian: Вертеба) located on the outskirts of Bilche Zolote village gets its name from the Ukrainian word for "crib" (Ukrainian: вертеп, bertel). Verteba is one of the largest caves in Europe, measuring 7.8 kilometers (4.8 mi) in length, with a total of 6000 cubic meters. It consists of maze-like passageways, often separated by thin walls, as well as broad galleries. The walls of the cave are smooth and dark, with rare incrustations of calcium carbonate appearing. There are also small stalactites, and unusual stalagmites that have the appearance of barrels, all of which are coated in an opaque watery liquid known as moonmilk.

During the German occupation of this area in World War II, Verteba Cave was used by two separate groups as a hiding place. In 1942 a total of 26 Ukrainian Jews, including seniors and children, as well as three entire families, hid in this cave for six months from the Nazi Holocaust. They had initially selected Verteba Cave to hide in, since it was one they knew because of it having been a destination for tourists and cave explorers prior to the war. However, they eventually had to abandon Verteba cave, due to the fact that it was poorly vented, and they were unable to breathe because of the buildup of smoke from their cooking fires, it had no supply of fresh water, and because it was not safe.

As they were deliberating what to do about finding a new hiding place, an event took place that thrust them into making a decision. In May 1943, the Gestapo launched a surprise raid into Verteba Cave while the Jews were asleep. In the following chaos, most of them escaped further into the cave, however the Nazis captured eight of the Jews, and began leading them out of the cave at gunpoint. Fortunately, six of the eight managed to escape from their captors, but the other two were never seen again, and were presumably killed. The Jews in the cave regrouped and managed to escape from a secret alternate exit they had dug previously for just such an emergency, and while the Gestapo and their dogs were busy searching near the cave's main entrance, the Jews fled into the night.

The Jews managed to hide in a barn owned by a friendly Ukrainian in Bilche Zolote for the next few days until they could find a permanent hiding place. At that point two of them were guided by a local Ukrainian to a nearby cave that had not been explored, and which was known only by a handful of local farmers. So, with their ranks filled with a few more Jews who joined them (bringing the total to 38 individuals of all ages), they relocated to the more hospitable Priest's Grotto Cave (also known also as Ozerna Ukrainian: Озерна, meaning "lake"), located about 8 kilometers (five miles) away, near the village of Strilkivtsi (Ukrainian: стрілківці). Priest's Grotto Cave had the advantages of being less well-known, more isolated, and had a good airflow through its chambers, which would keep smoke from building up to toxic levels. The cave got its name Ozerna from the fact that it had an underground lake, which provided the refugees a safe and clean source of water.

Even though they had found a safer place to hide, their lives were still at great risk. At one point some of the local Ukrainian villagers, working for the Germans in the capacity as a local constabulary, tried to seal the Jews inside the Priest's Grotto Cave by blocking its entrance with heavy boulders, logs and dirt, however the Jews managed to find a way to dig themselves out of this trap, so they could bring in food and firewood. At another point, some of the local gendarmes hid in waiting for the Jewish men who had to go out to scrounge for supplies, and while they were returning, fired rifles at them, however none of the Jews were injured in this attack. Although these events took place, there were also Ukrainian villagers who helped the Jews, and so this should not be overlooked.

These Jewish families managed to live underground for two years while 95% of the Ukrainian Jews were exterminated. This was the longest documented case of humans living in a cave without leaving. Because they did not have enough candles or light sources to illuminate the darkness for long periods of time, they lived in absolute pitch blackness except for two or three times a day, when a single candle would be lit to help them prepare their meals. They established sleeping quarters, latrines, and had detergent available at times in order to maintain cleanliness to a certain degree. As time dragged on, many of them ended up sleeping for most of the time, in what they later described as a sort of hibernation. One of the survivors, Pepkala Blitzer, was a four-year-old girl when she and her family sought shelter in the caves from the Nazis, and later recalls how she had completely forgotten about the sun or daylight. Eventually, one day in early April 1944, one of the Jewish men found a bottle lying on the floor beneath the entrance to the cave. Inside was a message from a friendly Ukrainian farmer, which read: "The Germans have already gone." A few days later, the entire group of Jews hiding in the cave finally left their refuge. Standing in the bright sunshine, 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.

In 1993 a young American spelunker named Christos Nicola was exploring caves in this region when he discovered the remains of these Jews in the Verteba cave. He then spent 10 years conducting research, until he was able to locate many of the people who were still alive who had hid in this and the Priest's Grotto caves. These survivors and their families now live in Montreal, Canada, and New York and Florida in the U.S. The fascinating story of Nicola's 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,as well as numerous other journal articles, and an award-winning book published in 2007 that Nicola helped to write, targeted for a young adult audience. National Geographic staff writer and photographer Peter Lane Taylor, who co-authored "The secret of Priest's Grotto" with Nicola, recently created a production company named Frontier Media Ventures, and is busy working on an upcoming documentary, exhibit, and feature motion picture film about Nicola and the Priest's Grotto Jews.

The second group that used the cave during World War II was the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or U.P.A. (Ukrainian: Українська повстанська армія), a Ukrainian nationalist partisan organization that struggled for self-rule and freedom from outside control, including that of the Germans and Soviet Union. This group ultimately failed to gain independence for Ukraine, and were eventually defeated by the Soviet Union through its use of infiltration, terror, and attempts to win over the hearts and minds of the indigenous western Ukrainians who provided the U.P.A. support and shelter. By the mid 1950s, the U.P.A. no longer existed except for isolated individuals or small groups who were soon wiped out. However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.P.A. is regarded in a much better light than it had been during Soviet control. Today there is a monument in Bilche Zolote dedicated to the U.P.A.

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