Stranger Than Fiction’s Spring 2013 season opened on the second night of Passover, an appropriate night to share a story of Jewish survival and liberation. No Place on Earth, directed by Janet Tobias, is the story of the Stermers, a Ukranian Jewish family who survived the Holocaust by hiding in underground caves for a year and a half. Their amazing story may have been forgotten forever were it not for the work of Chris Nicola, a cave explorer who discovered remnants of the Stermers’ lives in the 1990s. Today, brothers Saul and Sam Stermer and their nieces, Sonia and Sima Dodyk, are alive to recount their stories on-camera, while the memories of the late matriarch Esther Stermer survive through her writings. No Place on Earth combines these interviews and writings, as well as dramatic recreations and a climactic reunion in Ukraine, in order to tell a moving story of perseverance and survival.
After the screening, Tobias spoke with STF’s Thom Powers about the filmmaking process and how the film has affected the lives of the Stermers.
Stranger Than Fiction: Janet, a lot of this film is told in the past, and I want to ask about that in a minute. But first, I want to ask you about the section that’s told in the present, which is the trip back to the caves. Can you talk about what that was like, being with the Stermers as they made that journey?
Janet Tobias: They ranged in age from 70s to 90s. The oldest, Saul, was 90; he’s now 92. They were going back to a place where their neighbors had wanted to kill them, so there was some anxiety around that. But they really, really wanted to go back to the caves.
STF: Had they not been back there in 60 years?
Tobias: The women had never been back since they left as small children. The men went back once in the early 1990s to put up a monument to their father, but they didn’t go back to the caves.
The caves were very, very difficult. You worry enough about your crew going into caves, let alone elderly people. The second cave, which they couldn’t get in, required you to go down a 100-foot shaft and crawl in a crawlspace. And then you get into smaller rooms, where we had to dig out more trenches until we got to the bigger room. So we had to bag every piece of equipment multiple times to get it through. We basically did a construction job trying to make it possible for the grandchildren, at least, and our crew to go through. So mostly I spent my time worrying that I wasn’t going to do any harm to old people who really were so excited about seeing the caves they’d been in.
STF: And now let me ask you about the past that you cover in the film, because to me, your use of recreations is very effective, and that’s not always true in documentary. As you made that creative decision, what were the things that you were concerned about, and what were the things that you did to pull it off?
Tobias: I don’t like recreations, actually. I like either pure documentary or pure drama, normally, but it was really clear to me with this story that we needed drama in order to help you imagine the world of the cave. Some documentaries are built on very reflective subjects who really analyze what happened to them, but the Stermers are actors. They basically acted on their environment. They didn’t sit in the cave saying, “What happened? What’s going on?” They said, “We have this problem, and we’ve got to solve it.” They basically are the greatest adventure survivors I’ve ever seen, and that’s why I fell in love with the story. So I felt like we needed drama to illustrate both of those things, to have you see the world of the cave and feel what they were able to accomplish, and in order to do that, I went looking for the best people as editors and cinematographers from drama. My editors had not ever done documentaries before. And my cinematographers were César Charlone, who shot City of God and The Constant Gardener, and Eduard Grau, who shot A Single Man. César actually did the documentary part and Eduard did the drama part with Peter Simonite, who’s Terrence Malick’s second unit, so I’m just shining their shoes continually. (laughter)
Audience: What was the production process like? Did you write a script? Did you do the interviews and then write a script?
Tobias: We took the Stermers back to Ukraine first, which I’m really glad we did, but I did it because they were so old. They’d said to me, “This is the last available moment. We won’t be able to go back next year.” So we did the ending first, and then we did the interviews, which was really good, because they had fresh memories from their visit to Ukraine. After we did the interviews, we built the spine of the story using the interviews and the return footage, and then we shot the drama last.
Audience: What was the response from the Ukranian people when you all showed up there?
Tobias: When I first went to the cave just by myself to look at it, I felt like people were wary, because it’s a small village, and people are aware of outsiders. The second time I came back, César and I got invited into the home of a woman who stopped us on the street. I think the young people have all gone to the cities, so the only people left are old people and, frankly, old women. There aren’t a lot of old men because they were killed during World War II. The women were willing to talk once we were there. They know their lives are coming to an end, so they’re more willing now to talk than they were when we first started about what they saw and what happened. You’d ask them and they really would talk to you.
Audience: How did you hear about the story?
Tobias: I worked at PBS about a decade ago running a show, and a colleague came to me saying, “There’s this great Holocaust story.” I first said no, because there are too many great Holocaust documentaries and dramas by incredible directors. And then he said, “You’ve got to go meet the Stermer family.” So I went to Montreal to meet them, and they had such pride in recalling their story, and I thought, “I’ve never heard a Holocaust story like this.” And frankly, since I started at 60 Minutes out of college, it’s the best adventure survival story I’ve ever heard. And then I met Chris Nicola, and he’s also a great character. You could build a film around him, the New York State investigator who’s been to 40 caves around the world. So then I was hooked.
STF: Can you talk about what it’s been like for the Stermers to now have this story out in the world?
Tobias: They’re incredibly proud. In the process, Saul, who is the oldest, kept saying to me, “Hurry up! Do you understand how old I am?” (laughter) And I said, “I’m trying, I’m trying!” because documentaries always take too long, right? They’re all happy but they’re all four different individuals who had different experiences based on how old they were. So a four-year-old girl’s experience is different from an eight-year-old girl’s experience, which is different from a 14-year-old boy trying to keep up with his 21-year-old brother. But Saul laughs every time I talk to him on the phone. And he says that he never thought it would get out. As he says to me, “What a story. What a story.” (laughter)
STF: Well, I’m curious about that, because the story stayed untold for 50-some years, and I wonder if you could talk more about why it remained a secret. Was it willful on their part to keep it a secret, or was it accidental?
Tobias: I think there are two things at play. One is my hypothesis, and one is what they say, and I think both are true. As I began to look at the world of Montreal that they live in, I realized that Montreal is a gigantic Holocaust survivor community, and proportionate to the population, it’s the largest in the world. And I think in a world of survivors where most people lost many members of their family, you don’t say, “I didn’t get on the train. I didn’t go to the ghetto. I did something different, and my family made it.” So I think they were cautious and respectful of the people around them in telling this.
What the Stermers say is that, when they first came to Canada, they told it a little, and people didn’t believe them. And so they stopped telling it. They went on to have very successful business and professional lives, and they had to learn new languages and raise families, so they were busy, and if people didn’t believe them, they weren’t going to belabor it. But they told it at the dinner table all the time. For the children and grandchildren, it was sort of a fairytale. They believed it to be true, but when they saw the objects, some of the children started crying. I think they thought, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, Dad lived in a cave for a month,” but then the reality of it really sunk in.
Audience: You spoke about visiting the older people who still live in the Ukranian village. What was their reaction when the survivors came back?
Tobias: I don’t think they were hostile anymore. There were one or two people who knew them, very tangentially, but knew them, and they came up to talk to them. But as Saul would say, there were 20 soccer players in his group, and he’s the only one who’s still alive. This part of Ukraine was arguably the deadliest place to be a Jew in all of Europe. Only 5% of the Jews in this province survived, so they sort of are the statistic. But people were either slightly curious, slightly friendly, or ignoring. They were not hostile in any way.
STF: Is there any prospect of this film being shown in the Ukraine?
Tobias: Yeah. I think we are going to take it to Ukraine in a limited way, at least to a festival. Its US launch is in April. It opens at the Angelika and the Film Society of Lincoln Center on April 5, and then it rolls out across the country. And in Germany, we have a theatrical premiere on May 6, and it rolls out in German cities on May 9.
Audience: Was the scene with the dog based in fact, or was it something you learned in school? It reminded me of when Odysseus comes back from his wanderings and the dog and the nurse remember him.
Tobias: It really happened. When the Stermers returned to their village when the war ended, no one came out to help them or greet them. So they couldn’t believe it when their dog found them and was so happy to see them that he jumped all over each of them. They said that’s when they all started really crying.
While we worked on the language in the script, the script is due to the factual writings of Esther Stermer, who wrote a book, and Sol Wexler, the young boy whose mother and brother were killed. He wrote a letter in a DP camp to his father who managed to get out before the war. The counselor was so upset by what she heard had happened to him that she said, “You’ve got to write a letter to your dad and explain what happened to you.” So his words are the perspective of a little kid.
Audience: And the child who was stealing the flour, who was that?
Tobias: That’s Sol Wexler. He lives in the Bronx, but he has a hard time. He really wanted this story told, but he’s not able to do long, public interviews about it. So I talked to him and interviewed him privately. Esther Stermer’s sister was his mother, so he was a cousin of the Stermer boys. He’s still alive, and you saw him at the very end. He’s actually not seen the film. He still has nightmares where he can hear his brother being led away by the Germans, so while he wants this story told and wants his mother and brother honored, it’s still too much for him, as it is for many people. While the Stermers are just like, “Let me talk to as many people as possible.” (laughter)
Audience: Did he ever reunite with his father?
Tobias: Sol? Yeah. His father had come here and tried to get the family out and couldn’t. I think it was hard when they reunited, because it’s hard when one person lives through a war and another person hasn’t, right?