ISSUE 1290 Sunday 6 December 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
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.
She 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
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
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
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 l97Os.
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
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
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
Nor, he says, is anyone in Poland
confused about the role of civil and
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
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
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
"What, do you think I sat there and
drank coffee?" she laughed.
"We were very busy in those days."
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
"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
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
It is true, for example, that she is a
victim of Hitler: most of her family died
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
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
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
ISSUE 1290 Sunday 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
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
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
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,
No one forces Helena Wolinska to sign
his arrest warrant.
October 1998: Helena Brus
is now living in Oxford, again with
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
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.