"No Place on Earth" begins with a mystery, and our sleuth hero is a spelunker named Chris Nicola. A short, fireplug of a man from Queens, with the endearing nasal honk to prove it, Nicola spent several years traveling and searching for clues about his family background. Along the way, he became intrigued by an odd rumor among some Ukrainian villagers about Jews who survived the Holocaust by living underground.
The rumor turned out to be true. In the depths of a cave, Nicola found buttons, shoes, crude benches and soot from fires. For several years, Nicola researched the inhabitants, tracked down the survivors and eventually spurred National Geographic Adventure magazine to publish a 2004 story on his findings. That article, in turn, led to Janet Tobias' compelling documentary "No Place on Earth."
The film tells the story of 38 Ukrainian Jews who lived in two caves for 18 months -- the movie calls it the longest underground survival on record -- and it features some astounding testimony from survivors, including Sonia Dodyk, a child at the time who now lives in Lake Success. She and others describe their lives as hunted, burrowing animals, emerging only to find food or cut wood. Nazis rousted them, though that somehow seems less horrifying than the villagers who sealed off their entrance. At one point, the cave dwellers stayed inside for two straight months in near-total darkness, sleeping 18 hours a day.
"No Place on Earth" depends heavily on re-enactments, but Tobias handles them delicately and keeps a lid on any overemoting. The film's main drawback is that it spreads its attention across numerous "characters," making it difficult to keep track of who's who. But this is a gripping, important story, and both Nicola and Tobias deserve credit for bringing it into the light.
PLOT The true story of 38 Ukrainian Jews who survived World War II by living in caves for 18 months.
RATING PG-13 (adult themes)
BOTTOM LINE Long Islander Sonia Dodyk, one of the few survivors, provides some of the gripping testimony in this film about a little-known aspect of the Holocaust.