Anyone who knows me knows I'm a complete and utter Holocaust wimp. I am still recovering from reading Anne Frank's diary back in middle school. When I toured her house in Amsterdam some twenty years later it hit me in a way I wouldn't have thought possible. I live close to DC, and am ashamed to admit I haven't yet had the fortitude to visit the Holocaust museum. Schindler's List? I don't think so.
All the same, I found myself picking up this book, which tells the story of a group of Ukrainian Jews who successfully managed to hide in a warren of caves for a year, narrowly avoiding capture by the Nazis, surviving despite insurmountable odds, with a strength and perseverance that are absolutely incredible. It is another one of my library's summer reading program picks for this summer, and it was an excellent choice.
The story is told from the points of view of two modern-day cave explorers, Peter Lane Taylor and Chris Nicola. The first part is a detective story: Chris, one of the first Americans to explore the Ukraine's famous Gypsum Giant caves, hears rumors about several Jewish families hiding in the caves during WWII, but at first can find no one to corroborate them. Years later, with the help of the Internet, he discovers some survivors and talks with them about their experiences there during the war.
The book alternates between interviews with the survivors and scenes of Taylor and Nicola exploring the caves and discovering artifacts from the survivors' 344 days spent below ground. It is not an easy book to read. Although it is targeted at a younger audience (the publisher recommends it for ages 9 - 12), it doesn't pull any punches. We read about the Ukrainian Jews who do not escape, about how they must dig their own graves before being shot and thrown into them, and how some of them do not, in fact, die, and are buried alive, calling out for help as the Nazis walk away. I don't think my 9-year-old could handle that. I can barely handle that.
But still, it is an amazing book, and I'd like my children to read it one day when they're a bit older. I'm glad I read it. Alternating between the past and present is an effective way to tell the story (and it also breaks the survivors' account into smaller, more easily absorbed pieces). The photographs are an excellent accompaniment to the text - there are stunning photos of the caves, maps of its astonishing maze of passageways (it is the 10th longest cave system in the world), photos of the families who hid in the caves before the war, right after the war, and a wonderful group photo, a recent one, of one of the families of survivors along with their children and grandchildren - none of whom would be here today had it not been for their grandparents' strength, persistence and ingenuity. That picture gave me goosebumps - and made me smile.
Here is a link to an excerpt from an article that appeared in National Geographic Adventure Magazine about Priest's Grotto.
The Secret of Priest's Grotto: A Holocaust Survival Story by Peter Lane Taylor and Christos Nicola (Kar-Ben Publishing, 2007)
Other blog reviews:
OMS Book Blog
Propernoun Dot Net