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Originally published Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 3:04 PM

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‘No Place on Earth’: A WWII survival tale brought to light

A review of the documentary “No Place on Earth,” which chronicles the remarkable story of 38 Ukrainian Jews who lived in an underground cave for 18 months during World War II.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 2.5 stars

‘No Place on Earth,’ a documentary directed by Janet Tobias. 84 minutes. Rated PG-13 for thematic elements including brief violent images. Harvard Exit.

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“I went to the Ukraine to find my family’s story, and I found someone else’s,” says caving enthusiast Chris Nicola in “No Place on Earth,” with quiet understatement. While exploring underground caves in the Ukraine years ago, he found some mysterious objects: remnants of a stove, buttons, bits of shoes. Probing further, he discovered an astonishing story: 38 Ukrainian Jews had lived there for 18 months during World War II, finding safety in the quiet darkness. A few of the adult men would emerge regularly, to search out supplies; the rest stayed underground, damp and cold and hungry, until the war’s end.

“No Place on Earth” is at its most moving when showing us, in close-up, the still-haunted faces of the cave dwellers, many of whom tell their stories to director Janet Tobias’ camera. (Many of them immigrated to the U.S. and Canada after the war; their descendants number more than 100.) It’s less effective telling the story in re-enactments — seeing healthy-looking actors in the prettily lit cave diminishes the impact of the story.

The film recovers at the end, as we see a group, with children and grandchildren in tow, returning to the caves for the first time in 60-plus years, seeing their family names still carved on the walls below. “We weren’t heroes,” says one of them. “Just survivors.”

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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