Borshchiv district, Ternopil region
Year - Total Population - Jews
1880 - 2,794 - 126
1900 - 3,374 - 203
1921 - 2,940 - 133
Bilcze Złote (ukr. Bilche-Zolote, Більче-Золоте) was a small rural settlement known for its stalactite cave, which was discovered at the beginning of the 19th century and in which were found ancient remnants from the Roman period. Human and animal skeletons were found in the cave, along with potsherds from the period of the emperor Hadrian. In the 20th century Bilcze Złote was a vacation and convalescence destination.
The Jewish population of the settlement fluctuated between 20 and 30 families, most of which worked in agriculture. Six families made their living as furriers, mainly sewing thick fur coats for the villagers. Four families operated olive presses; there was also a Jewish shoemaker, a cooper, a butcher and two grocers.
In the prayer house (which was called Kloyze) there were four Torah scrolls, and in the cemetery that had been improvised in the place they only buried those who had died in epidemics, or Jewish soldiers who had fallen in World War I. The settlement employed a ritual slaughterer who also served as the mohel, a cantor, and an adjudicator for matters of kashrut who also performed weddings. The community also had a bathhouse with a ritual bath (mikveh).
We have no information regarding the situation in Bilcze Złote during the period of the Soviet rule (September 1939 – June 1941). With the outbreak of war between Germany and the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and the withdrawal of the Soviet army from the area, the Ukrainian population, and particularly the Ukrainian police, began to abuse the Jews. In Bilcze Złote the Jews were beaten and humiliated, were summoned to the Ukrainian police station for “questioning” which involved beatings, and then sent to jail; while they were imprisoned, the Ukrainians would rob their homes. The arrival of the Hungarian army put a stop to the acts of rampage, and those who had been imprisoned were freed. However, the Hungarians were only in Bilcze Złote for a matter of weeks and once the governance of the town was turned over to the Germans, the abuse of Jews began again and their property (personal belongings, homes, agricultural businesses, cows and horses) was confiscated. The Jews were taken away to perform forced labor.
Information regarding the destruction of this small community is ambiguous. It is assumed that the Jews of the place were uprooted in 1942 (in the spring or summer, and then perhaps only some of them) and taken to the closest larger settlement, Korolуwka, where the fate that befell the rest of the Jews awaited them: they were sent to Borszczуw or to the extermination camp at Bełźec. Only a few residents of Bilcze Złote, who had hidden in the forests nearby, survived the war.
- Pinkas Hakehillot Polin: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Poland, Volume II, page 115, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. Translated by Amy Samin, JewishGen, Inc.
In 2003, while exploring this remote cluster of caves, a team of experienced cavers and adventurers, including the authors, unexpectedly uncover artefacts indicating that the caves had once been inhabited. Following the clues, the explorers discover an astonishing and poignant story of a family who endured a perilous life underground and survived to recount their story.
The Secret of Priests Grotto combines natural history and family history to tell the remarkable story of the Stermer family, an extended Jewish that survived the Holocaust by hiding in the labyrinth of Ukrainian caves known as Priests Grotto to escape Nazi persecution.
In 1993 an American caver named Christos Nicola, exploring a maze-like Ukrainian cave south of Kiev, was startled to find hand-built rock walls, old shoes, buttons, and other signs of human habitation. Four years later, he tracked down the cave's inhabitants: three families of Jews, now living in the United States and Canada, who hid in the cave during the Nazi occupation.
The Secret of Priest's Grotto, a photo-illustrated book, interleaves an account of an expedition to the cave with the story of the families who hid there. Living underground in the seventy-seven-mile-long cave for nearly a year (after five months in a smaller cave), the Jews suffered hypothermia, malnutrition, and sensory deprivation. But the greatest danger was other people. When Ukrainian peasants realized Jews were hiding in Priest's Grotto, they worked for days with picks and shovels to block the entrance.
Only two former neighbors remained trusted friends. Had Nicola not been curious about an old shoe and a few buttons, we might never have heard the survivors' story.
Google books has a portion of it online
All of them were fleeing their villages of Korolowka and Biche-Zolote. In all, their group numbered 38 people, including a two-year-old boy and a seventy-five-year-old grandmother and they had lived in Popwa Yama for nearly a year. Between 1943 and 1944, three ordinary Jewish families - the Stermers, the Dodyks, and the Kurzs - had survived the Nazi occupation through extraordinary means, living in two different caves, surviving off the land, and running supply lines at night like well-trained military guerrillas.
Priest's Grotto was a cave known officially as Ozernaya, but local called Popowa Yama, the second longest of the Gypsum Giants and the ninth-longest cave in the world. The first cave was Verteba located a half hour outside of Bilche-Zolote by foot or horse-drawn cart. That cave was 4.8 miles long.
Verteba cave occupants: The Stermers, the Dodyks, the Wexlers, the Bodians, the Franks, the Barads and Mr. Chisdes.