By Howard Koplowitz
Note: Due to the conflict in Georgia, the trip has been canceled indefinitely.
Shunkale Hochman survived the Holocaust by spending 344 days inside two deep, dark and damp caves without seeing daylight.
She vowed never to go back to Ukraine where she hid, but Hochman said she now feels obligated to return to preserve her story of triumph over the Nazis.
With the help of an Astoria caver, the Long Island woman, now 74, will be going back Saturday to one of the caves, known as Priest's Grotto — first discovered by her family more than 60 years ago.
"This is my duty," Hochman told an audience last week at Long Island Jewish Medical Center, which is donating medical supplies for the trip, "to come back to the grotto and tell the story. I want to tell my children and grandchildren [so] that they should tell it to their children and grandchildren."
When Hochman's village in Ukraine was ordered by the Nazis in 1943 to become "judenfrei," or freed of Jews, by sending Jews to the ghetto, her grandmother said the deportation would be a death sentence.
So her grandmother asked her uncles to find a hole in the woods close to their village where they could hide.
They stayed near the entrance of the first cave, but the Germans soon discovered Hochman and 22 of her family members were hiding there. They managed to escape.
Hochman's three uncles and her father then went on an expedition, where they found Priest's Grotto and made bunkers.
Only the men would go out in search of food, while Hochman stayed in the bunker and slept for roughly two-thirds of every day. She said the family also had "righteous Christians" who would help them with provisions during the 344 days they spent inside the caves, which were so dark that Hochman could not see her hands in front of her face.
"We found a place where maybe, maybe our family could survive," she said. "And we did. We survived in that grotto."
Russians liberated the area on April 12, 1944, and Hochman's family saw their first sunlight in nearly a year when they left the grotto a week later.
"It wasn't so easy to survive," she said. "My family, we stuck together and we fought together to fight Hitler and to tell the story."
Signs that Hochman and her family hid in the caves were first found in 1993 by Astoria resident Chris Nicola, an explorer who was led to the area while researching the "mysterious death" of his grandfather in Russia. He found shoes, clothing and a millstone for making bread when he ventured into the cave.
Nicola and about 40 others, including Hochman, other Holocaust survivors, a North Shore-LIJ physician and a documentary film crew, will descend into the 77-foot-long cave Saturday. He said Priest's Grotto is the 11th-longest cave in the world.
"By fate, I have become a type of conduit" between the survivors and the cave, Nicola said. "I think [the trip is] going to help them find their eyes and voice again so they could tell their own stories."
Although it has been more than 60 years since her survival, Hochman said the memories of her ordeal are still vivid.
"My family, we have never forgotten the cave," she said. "We're always in the cave. We never left the cave."
Reach reporter Howard Koplowitz by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 173.