Franz Wolff

01/05/2015 21:26

Who is Franz Wolff?

Franz Wolff is a central character of the books 'Whispering Birches' ("WB") and 'Truth in Ash' ("TIA"). He is Austrian having grown up in Drasenhofen close to the Czechoslovakian border. We see him in WB as a wounded veteran, a man capable of brutality. His wounds were received in the Leningrad campaign, as described in TIA, where he had to hide behind the body of his friend, having been trapped by a sniper.  He served with the Waffen SS, but we see him afterwards assigned to the WVH, the section administering the concentration camps. It is clear that he has seen things that have hardened him. Sent to the camp either, through insubordination or his wound or, possibly a combination, he is a reckless man very sure of his place within the heirarchy of Nazi Germany.

In the camp, 

he meets and falls in love with Elena. The unlikely match sets off a set of events that destabilize Franz's place within the camp and his previous belief in the Nazi ideology. He shows compassion by setting up an illegal infirmary known as 'The Shelf'. Through this, inmates are able to avoid the fatal conditions of camp quarantine. He carries out several other humanitarian activities, saving the Long Italian, Heini the Gatekeeper and by giving inmates shoes prior to the Death Marches. Kanada was known as one of the few places where inmates were not badly beaten and Franz plays a major role in maintaining this. Prominent in the story is his action to save Elena's sister who has already been sent to the Gas Chambers. He retrieves and saves her, but leaves her two children to their fate. In the end, Franz is in trouble with the Gestapo, having been arrested earlier. In that case, corruption of the camp was uncovered and the race crimes were excluded. He was charged with military theft of cigarettes, despite being a non-smoker. On account of his leniency to inmates, he finds himself again under scrutiny of the Gestapo and only the camp's dissolution prevents him sharing the fate of his colleague Sturmmann Bestok, executed for helping his Jewish lover escape.

Despite his discomfort, on the other hand, Franz is a committed Nazi unable to connect his belief with the actions of the camp. He is convinced that he has not done anything wrong by being in Auschwitz and in his post war trial described in TIA, we see that he is unrepentant. On the one hand, he is extremely brave, compassionate and ready to risk his life saving inmates, on the other hand he is blind to the reality of the Nazi movement. In this way, Franz is a contradiction, typical of many people caught up in the Nazi movement of this period. Whilst later joining in the condemnation of the Nazi actions, many Germans of middle class background were complicit. In TIA, this complicity is explored through the story of his father Josef who despite being an anti Nazi and working with Jewish partners finds himself pulled along with the swell of this political movement. 

In Truth in Ash, we see Franz's story filled in by his parents. We see that he was spoiled as a youth and allowed to run wild, despite the entreaties of his father who has commercial connections with Jewish businessmen. We then see him after the camp desparately trying to find Elena only to find out that she has left for Israel and married. He is brought to this realization by a brutal letter from one of Elena's relatives who advises him to commit suicide. Finally, we see him as a middle aged man forced to confront his past in the post war trial. At last, he gets to see his lover when she returns to testify in his favor. However, he finally understands that his past is gone when Elena avoids any eye contact.

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, and so is justifiably disgusted by his initial advances. She loses her first love of Mihael and her own self-respect to Franz, for in the camp she is treated as a collaborator. Elena suffers badly, though she is also resourceful. She never throws herself on the electric 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. He is now a Prisoner of War confined to the camp and in danger of falling into the hands of the Russians. He is rejected by Elena who chooses to flee a destroyed and corrupt Europe to a  life with her new husband 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 by condemning and conspiring against him. It is also a severe breach of trust to testify i^for a Nazi guard and many are intimidated by this fact. Elena bravely returns to  testify in his favour and then encourages others to do the same. She is then followed by others who testify in his favour allowing Franz to secure release.

What is Franz's religious significance?

Franz is not an Archangel, but rather he performs a central role in 'Whispering Birches' as a human. Like all humans he is capable of compassion and of 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.

Franz appears shortly in the third book 'Fallen Beech'. Here we see him as Fenrir, the wolf who bites off the arm of Tyr, being his friend Lukas Armbrecht. The character is symbolic of the chaos of the Pagan world being subdued by the thread of Gleipnir that was constructed in 'Whispering Birches'.

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, travelling from Israel to do so. Franz Wunsch decided not to take part in the documentary.

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