Beneath an expanse of wheat fields within the remote farmland of Western Ukraine lies over 127,779 meters of explorable passageways, caves, an underground lake, and the secret to survival for 38 Jews who lived underground through one of history’s darkest eras.
Several brave families of Ukrainian Jews lived for nearly a year within the surreal underground world of the Gypsum Giant cave system, the longest uninterrupted cave habitation known. Needing to conserve fuel and candlelight, they lit the cave only long enough to cook, spending almost all of their time in complete darkness. They struggled with sensory deprivation, isolation, the threat of starvation, and constant fear of being discovered for a year before finding a message in a bottle tossed into the cave which read “The Germans have already gone.” When the families emerged one little girl had grown so accustomed to the dark, that she had forgotten what the sun looked like and asked her mother to “put out the bright candle, because it hurt her eyes too much.”
With the end of World War II, their underground ordeal went untold for decades, with the survivors wary of exposing their hiding place for fear that a future need to retreat back into the earth would arise.
Much of the massive cave system remained unexplored until the early 1990s, when Christos Nicola and an expedition of professional cavers discovered several artifacts suggesting relatively recent human habitation. Since then, Nicola spent ten years researching the story and managed to track down remaining survivors, slowly unearthing the incredible stories of their life underground.
Know Before You Go
It is about 450 kilometers (280 mi) driving distance southwest of Kyiv, and about 5.5 kilometers (3.4 mi) south of the district seat of Borshchiv.