Author's Words on Franz Wolff

29.11.2014 09:00

Who is Franz Wolff?

Franz Wolff is a central character of the book 'Whispering Birches'. He is an Austrian who grows up in Drasenhofen close to the Czechoslovakian border. We see him in the book after he received his wounds in Leningrad, where he served with the Waffen SS. It is clear that, when he arrives at the camp, he has seen things that have hardened him. He is sent to the camp either, because of insubordination or, because of his wound or, possibly due to the combination of both.

He shows compassion by setting up an illegal infirmary known as 'The Shelf'  for inmates to avoid poor conditions of camp quarantine. He carries out several other humanitarian activities saving the Long Italian, Heini the Gatekeeper and gives inmates shoes prior to the Death Marches. Kanada was known as one of the few places where inmates were not badly beaten and Franz has a major influence in maintaining this. Most prominent in the story, is his action to save Elena's sister who has already been selected for the Gas Chambers. He saves her, but is unable to save her two children. In the end, Franz is in deep trouble with the Gestapo and only camp dissolution prevents him sharing the fate of Sturmmann Bestok who was executed for helping his Jewish lover escape.

On the other hand, Franz is a committed Nazi who cannot connect his belief with the actions of the camp. He is convinced that he has not done anything wrong by being in Auschwitz. In this way, Franz is a dilema. On the one hand he is extremely brave and compassionate, but on the other hand he is blind. 

How would you describe his affair with Elena?

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 initial advances. She loses her love and self-respect to him, for in the camp she is seen as a collaborator. Elena suffers badly, but 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, for she has a strong survival instinct and we never know how far it was used. In the end, she does let herself go and falls for Franz, particularly after seeing him risk all to save her sister.

In Truth in Ash, we find Franz desperate to re-connect with his lover, but now the shoes are on the other foot, for he is now Prisoner of War confined to a camp and threatened by his past. He is rejected by Elena who chooses to flee the destroyed and corrupt Europe to a new life with her new husband David in Israel. In the 1970s, Franz's past comes back to haunt him and he finds himself in a highly public and political trial. His former protectees now show their real sentiment in condemning him. Only the collaborator Elena returns to pay off the family debt of him saving her sister, by testifying in his favour.

What is Franz's religious significance?

Franz is not an Archangel, but rather he performs a central role in Whispering Birches within the story as a human. Like all humans he is capable of compassion and also evil. In the book Truth in Ash, he has the significance of being the central child character with his dominating mother Maria and ineffective father Josef. His sins are forgiven by his family just as in Roman Catholic faith, the sins of the past are wiped by confession. His moral bankruptcy and redemption is also symbolic of the questionable role played by the church during the conflict.

Who inspired the character Franz Wolff?

The BBC programme by Lawrence Rees, reported upon the love 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 in his post war trial in Vienna travelling from Israel to do so. Franz Wunsch decided not to take part in the documentary.

Franz Wunsch                        




Helena Citronova