The Three Lives of Helena Brus

December 6th, 1998

A Polish Communist, resident in Britain, was accused of Stalinist-era war crimes. Her extradition became a matter for British justice.

To the citizens of safe, happy countries which have never known war and 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 left-wing, Soviet-backed underground army in occupied Poland. Their representatives are, she hopes, waiting for her 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 anyway. 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 also now the mistress of Franciszek Jozwiak, head of the new People’s Militia and eventually to be both deputy prime minister and a Politburo member. She is well-connected in the new regime, knows many of its top officials. One of them has asked her to sign an arrest warrant for General Emil Fieldorf, one of the real heroes 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, General Fieldorf battled the Nazis as a member of the Home Army, which fought for an independent Poland rather than a communist Poland. Many of its members were still fighting against the People’s Guard, renamed the People’s Army, long after 1945 : “they called themselves partisans,” she says now of such people, “we called them bandits…it was a civil war.” As a suspected bandit, General 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 rather spectacularly in 1944, each having thought the other was dead, but remarried only in 1956, after she left the chief of police. They came to Britain in 1971, spent a year in Glasgow, then moved to England at the invitation of Oxford University, where Professor Brus is now a respected, retired economist, known to the Polish community as an early advocate of market reforms and as a genial, even 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. Perhaps for that reason, perhaps for other reasons, she has lived much of her 27 years in Britain as a virtual recluse, seldom leaving the house, seldom inviting anyone in. Professor Brus appears often at Oxford social events, his wife hardly ever. She is described by the wife of another Oxford professor as “bizarrea 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 General Fieldorf. It is a risk; or it is a chance to clear her name. She refuses.

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. Last week, a Polish military court has called for the arrest of Helena Brus, and very shortly the Polish government will send her notice of this decision. She can appeal, but f she does not, or if her appeal 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. For in comments to this newspaper and others, 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 will not return to the “country of Auschwitz and Birkenau”, that she is being scapegoated because “everyone else is now dead,” that she had nothing to do with General 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 prosecutorWarsaw is straightforward. “She’s not any kind of exception,” Colonel Janusz Palus, assistant and spokesman for the chief military prosecutor, General Ryszard Michalowski told me. In his office on Nowowiejska street, not far from where Mrs Brus used to work, General Michalowski produces a list of several dozen similar investigations into the activities of judges and prosecutors responsbile for the deaths or imprisonment of famous Home Army officers, obscure Home Army soldiers, even participants in anti-communist riots in the 1970s. 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. Colonel 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 – Colonel Palus is also happy to spell out some of the circumstances of General Fieldorf’s arrest and execution. For one, he claims that Mrs Brus is not being accused of breaking the law retrospectively: she violated laws which applied at the time, having illegally extended General 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 General Fieldorf, those who sentenced him, and those who moved his case from a military to a civil court, knew from the beginning – from the moment of arrest – that he was intended to die.

There are documents and witnesses of these events, Colonel 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 eighteen months without trial in the 1950s, another Home Army officer, 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 Colonel 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, and build no special doubts, even among newspapers with a wide range of political views. She is too ordinary, her life story sounds too familiar, the people whom she knew and who knew her were too famous. 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 during a wave of internal party anti-semitism. Hence her decision to come to Britain in 1971, and hence, perhaps, her professed admiration for Britain and loathing of Poland. Britain was kind to her at a time when to be a Polish Jewish communist was no longer such an attractive proposition.

It is also 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 People’s Guard, 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, anymore 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.