The Tale of the Ring: A Kaddish

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Memoir by Frank Stiffel, 1984

The kaddish is the Jewish prayer for the dead, which focuses on praise of God instead of on death. Describing courage, intelligence, and dignity in the face of death is the focus and intention of Frank Stiffel's memoir, The Tale of the Ring: A Kaddish. Stiffel was in medical training when World War II came to Poland. With his family he fled to the Warsaw Ghetto, but eventually they were sent to Treblinka. His parents were gassed, but Stiffel and his brother, Martin, survived and escaped the camp, returning to Warsaw where they aided Jews in illegal immigration to Poland.

Martin was not recaptured, but Frank was taken, along with others, to Rabka Gestap Academy, where he was questioned and tortured. His death sentence, which he received for aiding Jews in fleeing to Palestine, was commuted to imprisonment in Auschwitz. His group, so courageous they had impressed their captors at the academy, were the first prisoners to leave there alive.

In The Tale of the Ring: A Kaddish Stiffel compares the social structure of Auschwitz to that of a corrupt city. A handful of bigwigs at the top controlled a mass of nonentities at the bottom; if a prisoner survived long enough, it was a hierarchy up which a prisoner might climb a few rungs. Survival was the objective for everyone. Stiffel regarded the struggle as one involving a physical as well as a crucial moral element. "I had the will to survive," he writes, "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)." Severe illness ultimately led him to seek help at the camp hospital. For most prisoners this constituted 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. For the rest of his time at Auschwitz, he worked in increasingly responsible capacities, gaining a vantage on camp life that infused the memoir he had already started writing on pieces of soap he salvaged.

Stiffel started compiling his secret notes that evolved into The Tale of the Ring: A Kaddish immediately after his liberation from Auschwitz in 1945. After coming to New York City, he translated it into English in 1958. A thread of mysticism runs through the book and alludes to the ring mentioned in the title. Stiffel had several prophetic dreams in which a girl spoke to him. In Treblinka he found a ring with a cameo of the face he identified as this woman. He miraculously held onto the ring in spite of many changes in his fortune. After the war he met and married a woman whose face resembled that of the woman on the ring. Together they immigrated to the United States. Rejected by a dozen publishers, A Tale of the Ring: A Kaddish remained unpublished for 30 years. At a Passover seder in 1981 Stiffel met a production editor who volunteered to help him shape the book for publication.

—Martha Sutro