The secrets of the Priest’s Grotto

The secrets of the Priest’s Grotto

Explorer’s film tells the true story of the Ukrainian cave where 38 Jews survived

Cave explorer Chris Nicola by the millstone at the Priest’s Grotto.
Cave explorer Chris Nicola by the millstone at the Priest’s Grotto.

In 1993, NYPD officer and caving enthusiast Chris Nicola went exploring in western Ukraine’s Verteba and Priest’s Grotto caves.

In the latter, less accessible cave, he was puzzled to discover evidence — remnants of shoes, buttons, and cooking utensils — of long-ago human habitation.

“Chris posted messages on bulletin boards and someone contacted him — a relative of one of the people who had hidden in the cave during the Holocaust,” Len Karpf of Freehold, said.

Mr. Karpf would later find out that his mother, Dorothy Reibel Karpf, now 89, was one of those cave dwellers.

Mr. Nicola had uncovered a largely unknown story of survival. The members of five extended Jewish families, from a baby to a septuagenarian, took refuge in the vast Priest’s Grotto for more than 500 days during World War II. Some of them had first hidden in Verteba Cave, but they’d felt too vulnerable there.

They came out in April 1944, when they confirmed that it was safe because the Russians had liberated this part of Ukraine. The story was documented in a 1975 book “We Fight to Survive” by one of the survivors, Esther Stermer.

Chris Nicola exploring another find.

In 2012, producer Janet Tobias released her documentary film “No Place on Earth” about Priest’s Grotto and Mr. Nicola’s investigative work in bringing the story to a broader public.

The film, narrated by Mr. Nicola and four survivors of Priest’s Grotto, will be shown on February 25 at the JCC of Central New Jersey in Scotch Plains. Mr. Nicola is scheduled to speak before and after the free screening.

It had taken the cave explorer a decade to locate and interview survivors and descendants of survivors of the original 38 cave dwellers. Most were living in New York or Montreal.

In 2004, Mr. Nicola and National Geographic staff writer and photographer Peter Lane Taylor wrote up the story in National Geographic Adventure Magazine — they later cowrote a young adult book, “The Secret of Priest’s Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story” — and Mr. Nicola began speaking across the country about his extraordinary finds.

Mr. Karpf went to one of these presentations. “I had gotten inklings from other family members, and we wanted to learn more,” he said.

“As a kid, I knew both my parents were Holocaust survivors, but they never talked about it. Chris started putting the pieces together, and we recognized other relatives’ names, and it all became clear. Then Chris came and interviewed my mother.”

Len Karpf explores the cave where his mother sheltered from the Holocaust.

Ms. Karpf opened up to Mr. Nicola. She confirmed that she and her mother, two brothers, and sister had hidden in Priest’s Grotto after her father had been taken away. She was just 11 when she emerged from the cave.

In 2006, Mr. Karpf and eight relatives traveled to the site with Mr. Nicola.

“One my cousins had been a baby in the cave and he came with his wife and daughters,” he said. “My mother’s brother’s son came, too. My mother wanted to come, but she couldn’t. It is arduous to get into that cave with full gear and lights.

“In some parts of the cave we were on our stomachs sliding through. The darkness in there is complete and indescribable. The families that hid there got rid of their shoes because they needed to feel their way with their feet. How anyone survived in there I can’t imagine.”

But it was safe. Mr. Karpf said the non-Jewish villagers in nearby Strilkivtsi never thought to enter Priest’s Grotto. “It was more of a sinkhole where they threw dead animals. The families knew about it because they saw foxes and other animals going in.”

The main reason the refugees were able to survive was that the cave is fed by “a big water source, pristine like nothing you’ve ever seen.”

Dorothy Reibel Karpf and her siblings stand together; they’d survived in the Priest’s Grotto together.

With the possible exception of one matriarch, the girls and women never left the cave, he said. “One person from each family unit went out one night per month to forage for food and firewood. They rigged up a little fire and a place to boil water. They lived on broth and boiled potatoes. They used the cooking fire very judiciously and did it in the right spot so the smoke went inward and didn’t suffocate them and didn’t go out of the cave to alert people to their presence.”

Mr. Karpf’s mother recalls never playing inside the cave, rather just “lying there in the cold waiting to die. It was cold and damp, and things started decaying.”

When the Jews finally emerged from the dark cave, Mr. Karpf’s baby cousin had scurvy from lack of Vitamin C. They were all emaciated and pale.

“The townspeople were frightened at how white they were,” Mr. Karpf said. “They didn’t look like humans. They couldn’t eat, or if they did, they got very sick, but all 38 survived.

“At least one was later murdered by townspeople who were afraid they’d try to claim their houses or possessions.”

His mother’s family spent a few years in displaced persons camps. His grandmother died of a heart attack on a train between DP camps. His mother and her brothers eventually went to Canada; her older sister ended up in Israel.

Mr. Karpf said his parents were introduced by another survivor, got married, and moved to Philadelphia. His father, who died in 2001, sold ties and men’s clothing in a farmers market and later opened a men’s clothing store outside the city.

“I don’t know what happened to my father during the Holocaust and how he got through,” Mr. Karpf said. “Two of his brothers did not survive. I know next to nothing about his history, and my mother says she does not know either.”

His mother now lives with his sister’s family.

What: Screening of “No Place on Earth” and conversation before and after with the star, cave explorer Chris Nicola

When: February 25, 2:30-4:30 p.m.

Where: JCC of Central NJ, 1391 Martine Ave., Scotch Plains

How much: Free; preregistration required 

Information: Call Randi Zucker at (908)-889-8800, ext. 253, or email her at

Sponsors: JCC of Central NJ in partnership with 3GNJ and the Second Generation Holocaust Survivors group at Congregation Beth Israel of Scotch Plains

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