Once in Treblinka
The Tale of the Ring: A Kaddish, by Frank Stiffel. Wainscott, N.Y.: The Pushcart Press. 348 pp. $22.50. THE ''kaddish'' referred to in the title is the Jewish prayer for the dead, which focuses on praise of God instead of on death. And this exceptional work by a Holocaust survivor does praise God by telling of foresight, intelligence, courage, and dignity in the face of death.
The author was finishing his summer medical training when World War II came to his hometown in Poland. Although his family temporarily evaded the Germans by fleeing to the Warsaw ghetto, Frank, his parents, and his older brother Martin were finally dispatched to Treblinka, the concentration camp. His parents were gassed; he and his brother survived. Like others, they suffered many hardships. But one day Frank discerned a way for them to escape, and their attempt succeeded.
Getting out was one thing; staying out was another. Many people preyed on escapees, taking whatever valuables they had and then betraying them. Relying on intuition, caution heavily laced with risk-taking, sheer courage, and help from a handful of honest people, they returned to Warsaw and started a small business.
Martin was not recaptured, but Frank was taken - along with others - to the Rabka Gestapo Academy, where they were questioned and tortured for days. The Ukrainian students who helped the Gestapo with the executions, among other things, were so impressed by the group's courage that when their death sentence was commuted to imprisonment in Auschwitz, the students were as pleased as the prisoners. Other people they had contact with told them that they were the first prisoners to leave the academy alive.
In some respects, the social structure of Auschwitz was like a large city. Between the handful of bigwigs at the top and the mass of nonentities at the bottom was a hierarchy up which a prisoner might climb a few rungs - if he survived long enough.
And survival was the name of the game for everyone. But Frank's approach added a vital moral element. He writes that ''I had the will to survive, and in order to achieve it I was prepared to do anything, except one: I would never choose to remain alive at the expense of any of my fellow Haftlinge (prisoners).''
Ultimately, severe illness led him to seek help at the hospital. Usually, this was a fatal error, because the sick were prime targets for death. Instead, a doctor recognized him as having studied medicine, and after he was well helped him get a hospital post. The rest of his time at Auschwitz was spent working in increasingly responsible capacities there.
After Soviet troops liberated the camp, Frank went through a period of depression and purposelessness. These feelings are not surprising, given that his main goal for so long - survival - had been met.
A thread of mysticism runs through the book and explains the ''ring'' mentioned in the title. Frank had several prophetic dreams in which a girl spoke to him. In Treblinka he found a ring with a cameo of a face he identified as this girl. Remarkably, he was able to keep the ring, despite many changes in fortune, until he no longer needed it for encouragement. What is especially intriguing is that at an important turning period during his quest for purpose after the war, he met a woman whose face was like the ''Girl of the Ring.'' He married her, and eventually they emigrated to the United States.
Although the book is far less gruesome than many others on this subject, there are descriptions of sickness and suffering. There is also some profanity, primarily in the dialogue Stiffel has reconstructed. Yet this isn't just a typical ''Holocaust survivor'' book. Stiffel refuses to dwell on himself as a victim or to think in terms of revenge: His generally positive outlook makes the book different from many.
How it got published is itself a story. Stiffel kept diaries throughout the war, and he based his work on them. Rejected by a dozen publishers, however, the manuscript remained unpublished for 30 years.
Then Stiffel mentioned it to Robert Hunter of Macmillan, who, along with two others, nominated it for the Editor's Book Award established by the Pushcart Press. Winning the award included publication by the press.
Thirty years was a long time to wait, but this book's timeless message of hope makes it worth every minute.