Author's Words on Mihael Rosenthal

29.11.2014 08:00

Who is Mihael Rosenthal?

Mihael Rosenthal is a central character of the books 'Whispering Birches' and 'Truth in Ash'. He is Slovakian, but grows up in Vienna. He went to school with Franz Wolff, but as a Jew he was expelled before finishing. After living in the ghetto, his father advises him to escape to his grandfather in Slovakia. He does this in 1938, only to find that the Nazis follow him into Sudetenland (the border country between Austria and Czechoslovakia). He again tries to escape but is caught and eventually ends up in Auschwitz. He joins the Ramp crew, only to find out he is working alongside his old school friend. He falls in love with Elena who Franz then takes from him.

Mihael is a fiery character full of initiative and sets up the Escape Committee with his Kapo boss Janek. Eventually, he is assigned to a role as Schreiber to Adolf Eichmann's adjutant Lukas Armbrecht and finds out the plans of the Hungarian transports. This inspires him to escape with with his friend Alfred Pfizer. On arriving in Slovakia, they then write a report and try to prevent the transports. Betrayed by his people, Mihael sees that there are forces even he cannot control.

In 'Truth in Ash', we see Mihael fighting with the resistance, having failed in his crusade to stop the Hungarian transports. As the Prague Uprising begins, Mihael takes part in the occupation of the Prague Radio building, but is warned off from risking his life by his commander, who tells him to protect himself so that he may be a witness for the future. Mihael comes into contact with his old contacts as the war conflict reaches its climax in the city of Prague. He finds out the location of the fleeing Franz Wolff and tries to persuade his old friend Janek to take revenge. This does not happen and he has to wait for his revenge in the trial of Franz Wolff after the war.

Mihael tells his account to the prosecution lawyer at Franz's post war trial. The lawyer eventually decides against using him as a witness as he can see that Mihael is too emotionally involved, for it is clear that he is driven by his hatred of Franz and Elena.

What was the report that Mihael writes?

Mihael and Alfred write the Lanik-Pfizer report in the book. In real life, a similar report was written known as the Vrba-Wetzler report. This was written by two Jews who escaped Auschwitz Walter Rosenberg and Alfred Wetzler. The book is fictional and the opinions and actions of my characters are not those of the real persons. However, to add authenticity, I have kept the details similar to the real report. It is considered one of the only reliable sources of evidence of the Auschwitz atrocity and I could never do justice to the bravery and intelligence that these two men displayed. Please click here for more.

How would you describe his relationship with Franz and Elena?

Mihael grows up with Franz and sees him as an innocent child developing into a Hitler youth and then later as a cynical SS guard. His story is a parallel with German society, for these acts were not performed by lunatics but rather by ordinary people indoctrinated with a lunatic ideology. However, Mihael cannot forgive and even when he can see that Franz has changed, he still pursues him with a ruthless vengeance.  

What is Mihael's religious significance?

Like many characters, Mihael has a duplicitous role in that he is a proud Jew but has the Orthodox Christian in him. He is obviously Archangel Michael the holy warrior who fights evil. Yet, we also see in him faults in that his intolerance and self centred ideology does not forgive. This ultimately isolates and excludes him even from his own people. His rejection of Elena as collaborator contrasts with her acceptance of her husband's past crimes. It is a message that wounds should be allowed to heal and religious hatred can only breed its own destruction.

In 'Truth in Ash' Mihael continues his crusade, but his efforts are frustrated one by one by the powerful influence of religion and the short term nature of the human character. He is also the character symbolising the rejection of religion as seen in his jpourney to identify his dead friend where he rejects the stench of the hanging man (symbolic of Odin and Paganism), the sun crosses of Orthodox, the broken and distorted mirrors (symbolic of Judaeism) and finally the scene of St Vitus on the Catholic cathedral. Mihael understands the corruption of both his faith and the church and unlike his friend Janek who returns to faith, Mihael rejects the concept of faith, unable to accept the corruption inherent in man.

What inspired the character Mihael Rosenthal?

Whispering Birches is similar in respects  to the story of the Vrba-Wetzler report, but ultimately Mihael and Walter are very different characters and intentionally so. In real life, there is no evidence of a link between Franz and Walter although they would undoubtedly have known each other both working around the Materials Section. Likewise, there is no evidence of a link between Helena and Walter, although both being Slovakian and working in the same area, they would have known each other. Now that the camp is gone and many of its survivors are dead, it will never be possible to validate fully such detail. At the end, I felt that making up an escape would have been less respectful to these individuals than to use similar details.





Walter Rosenberg    Alfred Wetzler