Thursday, April 10, 2008

A harrowing survival story

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


  1. Oh man, I seem to be on a huge holocaust reading thing. Unlike you, I'm fascinated with the stories and can't seem to get enough. Kinda weird when you think about it to much. I'm going to look into this one. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Natasha! I find the stories (especially ones like these) fascinating, too, but while I have no trouble reading fiction books that include all kinds of horrific violence, when I know that it actually happened, I find myself going to a really bad place for a while. But still, it's important to be aware of what happened and to try to learn something from it.

  3. I read about this one on another blog some months ago and decided then to try and get hold of it, because I have read holocaust books in the past. I never did get it so perhaps your post will encourage me to do something about that as it does sound fascinating.

  4. Darla D., as one of the co-authors of The Secret of Priest's Grotto, I was quite pleased to read your review of the book. Please let your local library know that if they should contact Joni Sussman via the below Kar-Ben Publishing email address, they might be able to arrange for Peter Lane Taylor and/or myself to give at presentation at their facilty.

    Chris Nicola
    (please note "Contact Us" link in upper right side of page)

  5. Cath - it really is a fascinating, amazing story. I think you will enjoy it!

    Chris Nicola - Thanks so much for stopping by my blog! The book is truly amazing, and it's good to get the word out about it. I work in a large library system, and I will pass Joni Sussman's email address on to our programming coordinator. Especially since this is one of our Summer Reading Program picks, interest is bound to be huge! Thank you for getting in touch.

  6. I'd like to visit Anne Frank's house one day, but I imagine that the experience will be quite overwhelming. I'm not sure if I'll ever have to courage to go to Auschwitz. My brother has gone, and seeing his pictures was enough of a shock.

    This sounds like an absolutely amazing book. Thanks for the review.

  7. Nymeth - I'm sure I would need some serious therapy after a visit to Aushwitz. I think I will have to draw the line at the Anne Frank house. And that is truly an amazing place to see - to look out that same window she describes looking out made shivers run up my spine.

    Luckily Amsterdam has some nice pubs to go to afterwards! :-p

  8. fyi. went to the holocaust museum in dc a few years ago. prepped myself to to cry, and while it was tragic, it was not nearly as earth-shattering as i expected it to be. maybe i already know too much.
    you should see schindler's list. you will cry, there's no avoiding that, and it will haunt you, but it's a story of one man who did one good thing to the best of his abilities for the good of many people.
    this book sounds good. it never ceases to amaze me how many ww2 and holocaust stories are out there and how far geographically and socially that phenomenon reached.

  9. I know I should do Schindler's List, but I keep not being quite able to face it. One of these days...

    What amazed me was that this amazing story was out there and so few people ever even knew about it. How many more of those stories haven't yet come to light?

  10. Chris, you have linked me to family members that I did not know existed. My grandmother, Mayem was a Stermer, and her brother was the faher, Zaidah, in your wonderful story.
    I know that you are with them today in the Ukraine and will continue to bring out this story.
    We have visited them and have hearf their story firsthand.
    Ken Brettschneider

  11. Hi Ken,

    I can't remember if I ever responded to this post. Please contact me through the below web site.

    Chris Nicola


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