Interview: Four holocaust survivors star in the documentary, ‘No Place on Earth’

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‘No Place on Earth’ is a documentary about the previously untold story of 38 Ukrainian Jews who survived Hitler by hiding in caves for 511 days. The four survivors who star in the film are Saul Stermer, 92, Sam Stermer (the “baby” brother), 86, and their nieces Sonia Dodyk, 79, and Sima Dodyk, 74, whose mother is Henia Stermer, Saul and Sam’s older sister.
I had the honor of meeting with these holocaust survivors in New York City for an interview.
Dorri Olds: What would you like to tell me about your harrowing story?
Sam: In a way it was a happy story because we all survived; our whole family. We were three brothers, three sisters, my mother, my father, my brother in law, two nieces. We were 11 people and we all survived. After the war, it was one of the happiest things. We were alive. We did it. We never stopped talking about that.
Sonia: The Germans came and took away my aunt. They found our special place underground. They took my aunt and killed her.
Sima: Excuse me. Do you want to hear the whole story? It’s a very long story, a very interesting story.
Olds: I want to hear everything you’re comfortable talking about.
Sima: I’ll let my uncle tell it. Otherwise we’re not getting the whole story, just little bits.

Holocaust Survivors
Saul Stermer, 92, Sam Stermer, 86, and their nieces Sonia Dodyk, 79, and Sima Dodyk, 74

Saul: So, we were all in our town in 1939. We were supposed to go to Canada; this is a different story. The war broke out while we were still in our town. We thought, ‘The Germans are not going to do nothing to us. We are a small family.’ We lived in a quiet little town but my mother, she knew.
Sima: In 1942 a group came to the town and offered all the men jobs.
Sam: The men.
Saul: The men. My mother said, “This is a trick!” My brother in law and my father said, “C’mon, let’s go,” but my mother said, “No, nobody goes.” We have to hide.
Sam: She sent our two sisters out to go look around and see what’s going on. My sisters got near the town and saw people running; 1500 maybe 2000 people were taken away.
Saul: We knew right away anything they told us to do, you shouldn’t do.
Sam: Do the opposite.
Saul: If they say, “Go,” you stay. If they say, “Stay,” you go. They started driving boys my age to concentration camps. This is 1942. They were taken away and never seen again. We were told, “You have to go to the ghetto to survive.” My mother said, “No, we are not going to the ghetto, that’s to the slaughterhouse.” My mother told my brothers and I to go find a place to hide.
Sam: It was October.
Saul: October. Through the winter we were there from I think 1942 to the end of …
Sam: March in 1943.
Saul: It was a Sunday. So we went back to our town. My mother says again to go find someplace; find a bunker. We came upon a guy in the forest. He said why don’t you try going down that way. There is a hole in the ground and go down and see if there is a place to hide. So we went to see what’s there. From the first of May 1943 we found the first grotto [cave]. We had to go down and we looked and there was an opening like a fireplace. We said, “Somebody has to go in.” So who goes in? My brother. My brother I wouldn’t change for all the world. Everyone should have such a brother. He went in tied on a rope to check it out. When he said, “Come in,” we went in.
Sam: We saw a boulder that had come down from the ceiling; a big stone.
Saul: We got to a place a big room, everything stone. We started walking and looking and I remember me, I touched a little stone and it rolled down. Then it went plink and we heard it hit water. So I got down and put my two hands like that. It was very dark you couldn’t see nothing. You put your finger in front of you and you don’t see it. So I went down and found that there was water so we could stay there. That night we went home and said, “We found a good place.” At night we got there and we moved the family to the cave.
Sam: We were there for six weeks.
Saul: Six weeks.