Who are the main characters of the book?
Janek Aniolov Kapo of the Ramp Crew, responsible for collecting possessions and bodies of arriving transports and delivering them to Kanada. He joins the Escape Committee with Mihael.
Ruth Stössl Kapo of Kanada section who manipulates Elena to lead Franz on. She exposes corruption of SS guards in Kanada Kommando.
Lukas Armbrecht Franz's best friend is a cynical opportunist and womanizer who later refuses to deny the camp's existence and purpose.
Mihael Rosenthal Originally Mihael meets Franz at school. As a Jew, he is sent to Auschwitz and encounters Franz whilst working with Janek in the Ramp Crew. He leads Escape Committee and escapes to expose Eichmann's plans regarding Hungarian Transports.
Gavriil Ahrenski Russian POW associated with the traitor general Vlasov. He smuggles gunpowder between Monowitz and Birkenau helping the Rebellion.
Rafael Romaniotes Greek dentist who Janek tricks into Sonderkommando, where he pulls gold teeth from corpses. He witnesses the Camp Rebellion.
Are the characters real people?
The characters are loosely based upon real people and events; The Vrba-Wetzler report was written by Walter Rosenberg after he escaped the camp. Franz Wunsch headed the Kanada section and was tried for race crimes both by the Gestapo during the war and by the Austrian government after the war. Helena Citronova testified for him, travelling from Israel to do so. Oskar Gröning worked in the Currency Section and rejected the denial of Thies Christofersen. These characters have some similarities with Mihael, Franz, Elena and Lukas respectively. However, it should be understood that the characters are all fictional and that opinions or actions described in the book are not those of real persons.
What inspired the story?
Lawrence Rees is an English historian who produced the BBC programme interviewing both guards and inmates of the Auschwitz camp. The series allowed a glimpse of real people, living through the Nazi years. It was an important historical step, particularly given that many of the people were reaching the end of their lives. The stories told, and particularly that of Helena Citronova and Franz Wunsch, inspired this novel. We are now seventy years after Auschwitz and it is appropriate that we remember this event in a balanced and respectful manner.
Music to read the book
Writing requires patience and time, scarce commodities in our hectic lives. Add to that, the dreaded block can strike at any moment. My defence is to listen to music, which can often overcome temporary periods of stress. Everybody has their own taste but this is music that helped me write the book. Beethoven's 7th, is a piece of music that inspires a sense of trudging through a sufferance. I imagine that many of the inmates of Auschwitz would have felt like this and particularly as the music reaches its climax at the end. Rackmaninov's 2nd needs little introduction, being the most romantic piano piece ever conceived. Despite its black side, Whispering Birches is a love story of dramatic proportion and I played this piece when I tried to convey a romantic sense. This version was played by the blind pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii and I love the obvious passion that overcomes him. Finally Tschaikovsky's Marcia Slava always brings me a sense of prisoners marching away from the camp, relieved to be out of it but at the same time shocked and saddened by their loss.
Whispering Birches is part I of the Tree of Faith series and has the Orthodox church as its religious theme. This is emphacized through the characters being linked to the Archangels:
Michael features in almost every religion as the primary archangel, the warrior who fights against evil on behalf of good. In Hebrew, Michael is the protector of Israel. In the book, Mihael Rosenthal is the warrior who escapes the camp and fights to prevent the Hungarian transports.
Gabriel is also one of the main archangels featuring in Christian, Islamic and Judaic religious history. He is the messenger of God and in the book Gavriil Ahrenski acts as the man delivering gunpowder for the rebellion. He is also the trumpeter in that he betrays his friend Vlasov.
Raphael is also one of the main archangels that span religion. He is the healer. In the book, Rafael Romaniotes is the Greek dentist whose tragedy ends when he is given up to the Gestapo.
Zarachiel is the angel of prayer, the one that is for fairness and justice. In the book, we find that Ruth uses her trade name, being a prostitute. her real name is Sara Raquel. Ruth is the one that converts Franz from brutality.
Uriel is the archangel of light. He is the one who guides man to the good. Uriel does not appear until the second book in that Whispering Birches is about the camp where the light is out. Griguri Elliot is Uriel.
Ramiel is the fallen angel, fallen because he takes wives, mates with human women, and teaches forbidden knowledge. This is Lukas Armbrecht the cynical opportunist who acts as guard in the camp in the story.
Sariel is the archangel of command which is the translation of Prikaz in Elena's native Slovakian. Sariel is often a fallen watcher and Elena's role in the book is ambivalent in that she becomes lover to the guard Franz.
Glossary of terms
This is the German name of the Oswiecim concentration camp complex. It was set up with the main purpose to exterminate unwanted minorities, but in particular the Jews. The camp probably killed somewhere between 1.5 and 2.0 million people. For more click here.
Also known as Auschwitz II, Birkenau was a major camp complex, in which the Crematoriums / Gas Chambers were based. It was named after the birch tree forest at its back. The novel 'Whispering Birches' takes place in the Birkenau part of the camp. For more click here.
Also known as Auschwitz III, Monowitz was a slave labour factory complex in Auschwitz. The SS leased Auschwitz inmates to large German industrial companies including IG Farben, Siemens and Krupps. For more click here.
This was the section within Birkenau where confiscated possessions were collected, disinfected, sorted and then sent back to Germany. Inmates in this section were relatively well treated. As a result, it got its name as the "land of milk and honey". The bulk of the plot takes place in Kanada. For more click here.
A team who manned the Crematorium. They were separated from the rest of the camp as the Nazis wanted as few witnesses of the liquidation process. These people often suffered the most having to burn their own gassed families. They were liquidated every three months. For more click here.
The block in Auschwitz I, where inmates were interrogated by the Gestapo. For more click here.
The Boger Bar
A torture device developed by Head of Gestapo Wilhelm Boger known as the Tiger of Auschwitz. It swung about the room, allowing guards to beat the bound inmate. For more click here.
This was a wall constructed from plaster and hazel branches and painted black. It was used for the firing squad of inmates convicted on trials in Block 11. Its construction was designed to be removed, so that no evidence would be left behind. For more click here.
This was the collection of rail platforms at which arrivals would disembark. The arrivals would be lined up left (women children and often old men) and right (healthy men). Doctor Mengele was responsible for selection. If he pointed his thumb left, you were condemned to the Gas Chamber, but right meant you could enter the camp. For more click here
There were five crematoriums in the Auschwitz camp. Here, bodies were burned and disposed of with industrial efficiency. The Crematoriums were normally located above the gas chambers. For more click here.
In October 1944, the members of the Sondercommando rebelled. The action failed due to their primitive weapons, but they succeeded in destroying the Crematorium infrastructure. Gassing stopped shortly after but mainly due to the Nazis's intention to liquidate the camp before the Soviets overran it. For more click here.
There were several escapes from Auschwitz, although the Nazis were ruthless in their process of hunting down such people. In the book, the escape of Mihael is very similar to that of Walter Rosenberg. For more click here.
This report is widely recognized as one of the most important pieces of evidence of the Auschwitz atrocity. It was written by escapees, Walter Rosenberg and Alfred Wetzler and details the various transports taken into the camp. In the report, it calculates that, up to the time of their escape, the camp had claimed 1.75 million lives. The report arguably was the first true exposée of the camps when published in the NY Times in 1944. For more click here.
This is the formal name given to the SS organization. It was divided into twelve divisions and run by Heinrich Himmler. The concentration camps came under SS administration. For more click here.
These were councils set up by the Germans, whereby jews were forced to cooperate with the Nazis. For more click here.
This was the short form for JudenPolizei who like the Judenrat were unpopular as its members were considered collaborators. For more click here.
It is confusing to understand the German ranks, particularly given that SS and Wehrmacht had different structures. For more click here.