Author's Words on Elena Prikaznova

29.11.2014 08:45

Who is Elena Prikaznova?

Elena Prikaznova is one of the central characters of the book 'Whispering Birches'. She is Slovakian having grown up in Hummené which lies to the east of the country. She enters the camp in April 1942 and is initially assigned to Königsgraben where she works digging ditches. It is soul destroying work and life expectancy in the group averages three months. When she finds out about Kanada, she takes the opportunity to steal an identity to get in. She does so by assuming the identity of a sick inmate. When found out, she has to sing for her place. She succeeds and in the process inadvertently seduces Franz and Kapo Ruth. Franz is blindly in love with her and tells her so. Her revulsion of the SS officer almost leads her to suicide. Instead, she falls for fellow inmate Mihael, but when he discovers her connection with Franz, he rejects her as a collaborator. She is then persuaded by Ruth to lead Franz on as part of her deal to stay in Kanada. Against her intial disgust, Franz eventually wins her over with acts of compassion, particularly when he risks all to save her sister from the Gas Chamber. During the book, we see her grow up as a woman sexually. 

She loses her family. Even the safety of her sister is only ensured through her collaboration with a Nazi guard. Her character is romantic, yet there is a cold hard survival instinct in Elena and we are never sure how far her calculation went. We hear that Ruth is executed, while she walks free and throughout the book she has a strong sense of personal survival. Nevertheless, she is a tremendously seductive personality bewitching Franz, Mihael and Ruth with her violet eyes. She is capable of compassion and gives herself freely to love.  Like Helen of Troy, her decisions create chaos about her. Elena tells her account to her carer in her flat in Israel.

In 'Truth in Ash' we see her in a different context as an old woman meeting her friend Leah. Having been told of her cancer, she confesses her story to her friend, not knowing that Leah herself had a connection to Mihael. her former lover  Mihael. We hear how Elena returned to Europe, to testify for Franz in his war trial in 1972. Sheviews her visit as discharging her debt to Franz for having saved her sister. In the process, Elena finds out an unexpected part of the truth.

What was the song that Helena sang?

Helena sings to be able to stay in Kanada. The song is from the 30s film Moscow - Shanghai originally performed by Pola Negri who later become the lover of Rudolf Valentino and Charlie Chaplin. Please click here to hear the song.

How would you describe her affair with Franz?

Like most things with Franz and Elena, it is complicated. She has lost her whole family to the camp so she is justifiably disgusted by his advances. She loses her love and self-respect to him, for in the camp she is seen as a collaborator. Elena suffers badly in the camp though she is also resourceful. She never throws herself on the wires and is able to manipulate others such as Ruth and Franz to her advantage. We will never know the full story but how much of her behaviour is genuine?  In the end, she does let herself fall for Franz, particularly after she sees him risk all to save her sister. However, she is also hard headed enough not to pursue the affair after the war.

What is Elena's religious significance?

Elena has a duplicitous role in that she is a proud Jew but collaborates to survive. Her role has some parallels with the legend of Helen of Troy. Her name suggests that she is the Archangel Sariel as Prikaz means Command in Slovak. 

What inspired the character Elena Prikaznova?

In the BBC programme, Lawrence Rees reported upon the lover story of Franz Wunsch and Helena Citronova. The characters of Franz and Elena in the book are inspired by these two, although it should be pointed out that no opinions expressed are actual opinions of these two characters. In the documentary, Helena admitted to falling in love with her captor and did testify for his acts of mercy in his post war trial in Vienna travelling from Israel to do so.

Helena Citronova