When Nazi forces advanced towards the Ukrainian village of Korolówka in 1943, Etcia Goldberg was 36 years old, a widowed mother of three children. As the armies drew closer, Etcia took matters into her own hands, joining a group of 37 Jews to a small cave known as Priest’s Grotto.
There, they hid underground, living by candlelight and surviving off scavenged food, for nearly a year before they emerged.
The story the Ukranian Jews who survived the war in a cave is well-documented. Now, a new book is revealing Goldberg’s role for the first time.
344 Days Underground is the self-published novelization of Goldberg’s life and her time in the cave, written by her grandson, Valeriy Gritsiv, a former physician and adoption coordinator. An independent spelunker named Christos Nicola had previously spent years researching Priest’s Grotto, culminating in a National Geographic article, a book, and a documentary on the subject. However, Gritsiv felt that his grandmother never got the credit she deserved. 344 Days Underground is his first book. Gritsiv, whose native language is Ukrainian, worked with a ghost writer to bring her story to light.
Nicola confirmed Goldberg’s leadership role in an interview with the Forward.
“I’ll tell you even recently,” Gritsiv said, “it has a chilling effect. Even now, I cannot believe these people so close to me, my granny and my mama, survived such a horror.” Gritsiv wrote the book as a novel from Goldberg’s point of view, largely addressed to him as a young boy struggling to understand what it is to be a Jew.
Goldberg’s husband, Chaim, had died of leukemia, and in the traditional village, Goldberg’s role as the head of her household and main breadwinner was already considered unusual. But in the face of encroaching Nazi forces, the time on her own served her well, as she took the lead with a few other villagers to locate the Priest’s Grotto, named after its former resident. On May 5th, 1943, she joined the group of 37 down into the cave, carrying a sparse supply of blankets, candles, straw, and other necessities.
When a small party was sent out to find food, Goldberg was the only woman to join a group of 11 men to buy and scavenge sacks of grain to bring back to the group. Gritsiv, drawing from his memory of his grandmother’s own telling of the story, writes:
“Though the air was laced with bat feces we had seventy-seven miles of free space to roam and to breathe. There was a deep freshwater lake, a gift from God. Our cave was so far below the surface that, if we wanted to, we could scream.” Modern estimates guess at about 80 miles of explorable passageways in the cave system.
Over the next year, the only light visible to those who stayed in the cave was the flickering candles lit to help in preparing food. All along, each of the other women in Priest’s Grotto relied on their husbands, while Goldberg, Gritsiv notes with pride, was alone among them in her self-sufficiency. Gritsiv writes of the way the inhabitants of Priest’s Grotto took notes from the animals they now shared a home with:
“Like the fox, we hunted close to home with the moon. We conserved our energy so that if we needed to, we could run fast.”
After 344 long, dark days in the cave, a local farmer dropped a message in a bottle to the group, saying only, “the Germans have already gone.”
Gritsiv reports that Goldberg lived a long and happy life after emerging from the cave, dying surrounded by her family in 1979. Gritsiv later moved to the United States, where he founded the Elina International Adoption Agency to help Americans adopt children from the former Soviet Union. Today, he lives in Roswell, Georgia, with his daughter, Elina.
“I think that the goal here is to…not allow people to forget what happened,” Gritsiv said. “I think to some extent in our country right now, certain minorities are being oppressed, and this remains a lesson for future generations.”
The book ends with a poem from Elina:
“You steal and kill and try to break my will, But I keep pressing on. My children cry themselves to sleep, their little bodies wilting. I keep on pressing on. No snow, no gun, no threat of death will stop me. I keep on pressing on. One day this hunt will end, and I dare hope we will be the last ones standing.”