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Monday, December 7, 1998


We already reported on this modern tragedy. Here is more...

The Sunday Telegraph

London, December 5, 1998
News Focus:

The past catches up with Helena Brus

She is the elderly wife of an Oxford academic: Last week a Polish court called for her extradition over her role in the execution of a resistance hero.

Ann Applebaum in Warsaw unravels the extraordinary story of Helena Brus The three lives of Helena Brus HELENA BRUS has led, by Polish standards, an ordinary life: stories of people who did unpleasant things during unpleasant times and heroic things in heroic times are common here.



By British standards her life was not ordinary, but now it is the British who will have to judge her.

For last week, the Polish military court called for her arrest, and very shortly the Polish government will send her notice of this decision.

WolinskaShe can appeal, but if she does not, or if it is overturned, the Polish government will ask for her extradition. It is the life of Helena Brus, and not merely her alleged crimes, which will, sooner or later, be the subject of debate in Britain.

She has already indicated what her line of defence may be.

She told me over the telephone that she would not return to that "despicable country" where "they write such ghastly things about me". She has told others that she will "not have a fair trial in Poland", that she is being made a scapegoat because "everyone else is now dead", that she had nothing to do with Gen Fieldorf's death because he had a civil trial and she was a military prosecutor.

The investigation, she has said or implied, is not a fair judicial process but a political witch-hunt designed to single her out: it is inspired by vengeance and anti-Semitism.

One British journalist has already questioned whether a Jew should be extradited to the country of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

This week, her husband read out her statement to the Polish press: "The decision of the Warsaw Region Military Court concerning my alleged crimes does not contain a single true sentence." The response to these comments in the office of the Polish military prosecutor in Warsaw is straightforward.

"She's not any kind of exception," Colonel Janasz Palus, the spokesman for the chief military prosecutor, Gen Ryszard Michalowski, told me.

In his office on Nowowieska street, not far from where Mrs Brus used to work, Gen Michalowski produces a list of several dozen similar investigations; into the activities of judges and prosecutors responsible for the deaths or imprisonment of famous Home Army officers, obscure Home Army soldiers, even participants in anti-communist riots in the l970s.

Some of these investigations have resulted in prison sentences.

Some have been called off due to the ill health or deaths of the accused.

But many continue.

Col Palus points to the file of one ongoing investigation, that of "M K", a man personally responsible for the torture and beating of his victims.

"M K," he notes drily, "is not Jewish. And we have spent a great deal more time on his case than we have on the case of Mrs Brus."

While his office cannot release all of the military prosecutor's evidence against Mrs Brus -- that must await the trial and extradition hearings -- Col Palus is happy to spell out some of the circumstances of Gen Fieldorf's arrest and execution.

He says that Mrs Brus is not being accused of breaking the law retrospectively: he claims she violated laws which applied at the time, illegally extending Gen Fieldorf's arrest without charging him or producing any evidence.

Nor, he says, is anyone in Poland confused about the role of civil and military courts.

The General was initially charged with violating a law against the "use of force with the aim of changing the character of the Polish state".

Later, the charge was changed, and the General was declared to be a "fascist-Hitlerite criminal".

The change meant that he would be tried by a civil, not a military court, and that if found guilty he would be put to death.

The Polish military prosecutor's office now believes that those who arrested Gen Fieldorf, those who sentenced him, and those who moved his case from a military to a civil court, knew from the moment of his arrest that he was intended to die. There are documents and witnesses of these events, Col Palus says, as well as evidence of "other activities".

When I spoke to Mrs Brus, I asked her whether she got involved much in other cases.

"What, do you think I sat there and drank coffee?" she laughed.

"We were very busy in those days." Indeed.

When he was in prison for 18 months without trial in the 1950s, another Home Army hero, Wladyslaw Bartoszewski -- now chairman of Poland's Senate Foreign Relations Committee - remembers being shown blank, undated arrest warrants with Helena Wolinska's signature on them, proof he could be kept in prison indefinitely.

"She was a very important military prosecutor," says Col Palus.

As for her declaration of innocence, "they all say that. All of them say they are innocent until they are confronted with their victims, and some of them keep saying it even then." In Poland, the accusations against Helena Danielak-Wolinska-Brus are not especially controversial.

She is too ordinary, her life story sounds too familiar.

Look at it slightly differently, however, and it is possible to see how her story might take on other nuances in Britain.

It is true, for example, that she is a victim of Hitler: most of her family died in Treblinka.

It is also true that she was again victimised as a Jew in 1968, that she was expelled from the Polish Communist Party and lost her job teaching at Warsaw's Higher Communist Party School during internal party faction fighting, which culminated in a wave of anti-Semitism.

Hence her decision to emigrate to Britain -- many Polish Jewish communists emigrated at that time -- and hence, perhaps, her professed admiration for Britain: Britain was kind to her at a time when to be a Polish Jewish communist was no longer such an attractive proposition.

It is true that she was a war hero of sorts: she escaped from the Warsaw ghetto, and later escaped again from a train headed for a concentration camp.

"I slipped off and just walked away slowly," she says. "I knew I would die anyway if I stayed on the train. But they didn't shoot." Eventually, she came to be in charge of the office of the General Staff of the communist People's Army, and was afterwards duly decorated by communist Poland, and, according to her husband, by communist Hungary as well.

It is also true, however, that many Poles deeply resent Jews who use their Jewishness as an excuse when they are accused of other crimes.

Maria Fieldorf Czarska, the General's daughter, says bitterly that she doubts Mrs Brus will ever come to trial: "She will say she is old, she will say she is ill, she will say we are anti-Semitic." More than one person points out a curious irony: Senator Bartoszewski, whom Mrs Brus arrested, is best known for having led the Home Army division which was responsible for rescuing Jews. He is also an Auschwitz survivor, and now an honorary citizen of Israel.

"Senator Bartoszewski," scoffs Mrs Brus, "I never heard as much about him then as I do now." This may well be true. After all, most of the Home Army officers senior to Senator Bartoszewski were put to death round about the time Mrs Brus was walking the halls of the Ministry of Defence in her military prosecutor's uniform.

This Polish view matters, because it is Polish justice which is at stake. This isn't an Anglo-Saxon debate, any more than is the debate about the extradition of General Pinochet: the exploration of a totalitarian past isn't a British passion. One Polish government official formulates the problem like this: "Just because Jews were victims of crimes against humanity, does that mean they cannot be tried for crimes against humanity themselves?" That is not a British question, and few British people would ask it.

But now it will be Britain's problem to resolve.

© Telegraph Newspapers Ltd
The Sunday Telegraph
6 December 1998

The three lives of Helena Brus Focus: The past catches up

TO the citizens of safe, happy countries which have never known occupation, the lives of ordinary people in less safe, less happy countries can seem extraordinary indeed.

Here, for example, are three scenes, three moments in the life of a Polish woman, born in 1919.    

   • August, 1942: Helena Danielak is standing beside the wall of Warsaw's Jewish cemetery, an extension of the Warsaw ghetto, in the dead of night. She is there because she is following the instructions of the People's Guard, the Soviet-backed underground army in occupied Poland.

Their representatives are, she hopes, waiting on the other side of the wall.

If they are not, she will probably die: without false documents or instructions, she will quickly be caught by the Gestapo.

But if she stays in the ghetto, she will certainly die.

Her entire family have recently been put on a train headed for Treblinka; her husband, Wlodzimierz Brus, has vanished.

She climbs.

   • November, 1950: Helena Wolinska - she now goes by the name which appeared on the false documents she was given during the war - is sitting in a Defence Ministry office in Warsaw, dressed in the uniform of a military prosecutor. She is well-connected in the new regime, the mistress of the communist chief of police.

Now she has been asked to sign an arrest warrant for General Emil Fieldorf, a hero of the occupation, a man who supervised the sabotage of German factories and the assassination of the Nazi chief of police in Warsaw.

Unlike Helena Wolinska, Gen Fieldorf battled the Nazis as a member of the Home Army, which fought for an independent rather than a communist Poland: the Home Army had reported to the allied government-in-exile in London during the war, not Moscow, and many of its members were still resisting the Soviet-backed communist government long after 1945.

"They called themselves partisans," Helena Wolinska says now of such people, "we called them bandits. It was a civil war." As a suspected "bandit", Gen Fieldorf has spent the last several years in a Soviet concentration camp. Nevertheless, Polish communists continue to consider him a threat: in 1953, he will be sentenced to death by hanging, after a farcical, secret, eight-hour trial.

No one forces Helena Wolinska to sign his arrest warrant.

She signs.

   • October 1998: Helena Brus is now living in Oxford, again with Wlodzimierz Brus.

They met by accident in 1944, each having thought the other was dead, but remarried only in 1956.

They came to Britain in 1971, and soon after Professor Brus was hired by Oxford University, where he is now a respected, retired economist, known to the Polish community as an early advocate of market reforms, democracy in Poland, and as a genial, clubbable academic.

To the Polish community in Britain, Helena Brus is also well known: as soon as she arrived, she was recognised as the prosecutor who had arrested many Home Army officers and others.

Perhaps for that reason, perhaps for other reasons, she has lived the most recent of her 27 years in Britain as a virtual recluse, seldom leaving the house, seldom inviting anyone in.

Prof Brus appears often at Oxford social events, his wife hardly ever.

She is described by the wife of another Oxford professor as "bizarre -- a very private person".

Now aged 79, the past suddenly matters again: she has been asked by a Polish military court to testify in its investigation of the death of the now rehabilitated Gen Fieldorf. It is a risk; or it is a chance to clear her name.

She refuses.

© Telegraph Newspapers Ltd
The above news item is reproduced without editing other than typographical

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