Is this justice or revenge?
Poland wants to extradite a Holocaust survivor, now living in Oxford, for the alleged murder of a wartime hero.
Wednesday 30 December 1998
The first is Helena Brus, formerly Wolinska, an elderly British pensioner nudging 80. She lives a quiet life, together with her husband Wlodzimierz Brus, a professor of Russian and fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford. But behind Mrs Brus's comfortable retirement lies another, far more brutal past. Decades ago she had another life, in Warsaw during the 1950s - the years of Stalinist oppression - when she worked as a military prosecutor. Her critics accuse her of oiling the wheels of judicial murder. By issuing countless arrest warrants on charges of capital crimes in a totalitarian regime, they say she is as guilty as those who worked the gallows.
The Catholic is Maria Fieldorf-Czarska, daughter of a heroic general in the Polish Home Army, the main wartime resistance movement, who was hanged in February 1953. It was Helena Wolinska, she says, who began the process of pre-determined judicial execution by issuing the arrest warrant for General Fieldorf. Now, over 55 years later, Mrs Fieldorf-Czarska believes she has justice in sight. In a move that echoes the campaign to bring General Pinochet to justice, the Warsaw Military Court has ruled in favour of issuing an arrest warrant for Mrs Brus-Wolinska on charges of illegally extending General Fieldorf's detention. The next step will be for the Polish Justice Ministry to formally request her extradition.
Polish sources say that Britain has indicated it will not obstruct her extradition back to Poland on legal grounds. So the way is clear for another Pinochet-style episode: a clear-cut case of an aged former functionary of a totalitarian regime, apparently with blood on his or her hands, finally called to account for crimes of decades ago.
The Brus case is part of a Europe-wide desire for a reckoning for injustices arising from the war. The governments and corporations that profited so handsomely from the Holocaust, for example, know that denial is no longer adequate. Thus, the argument goes, the Right has admitted its sins and made recompense. Now it is the Left's turn and former Communist functionaries such as Helena Brus. The problem in this case is that the circumstances are more ambiguous. Mrs Brus is a Holocaust survivor who barely escaped the fate of most of her family in the death camps.
She argues that the attempt to extradite her is motivated not by a desire for justice, but rather vengeance and the anti-semitism that still persists in Poland. In a statement made to the Polish press she said: "The decision of the Warsaw military court concerning my alleged crimes does not contain a true sentence."
The prospect of an elderly Jewess, a lifelong anti-fascist, being forcibly returned to stand trial in the land of Auschwitz and Treblinka, where most of her family were killed, is troubling. But if elderly Nazis are still called to account for the Holocaust, why should aged Stalinists escape retribution?
The early 1950s were times of terror in eastern Europe. Stalin had installed brutal regimes run mainly by Communist exiles who had spent the war years in Moscow. Stalin understood the value of hatred, and using the principle of "divide and rule" he made sure that many of these officials were Jewish.
Returning to a Europe ravaged by the war and the Holocaust, they unquestioningly followed Moscow's orders. Anyone considered to be a threat to eastern Europe's new Marxist order was eliminated. Moscow particularly feared Polish Home Army officers, believing that they could form the nucleus of an underground resistance. Armed resistance against the Soviets continued until 1947.
General August Emil Fieldorf was arrested in November 1950 and put on trial in April 1952, charged with attempting to "use force with the aim of changing the character of the Polish state". Later the accusations changed to that of being a "fascist-Hitlerite criminal". His fate was that of most of his fellow officers who returned to Poland - a brief trial in a kangaroo court, followed by the gallows. At 3.30pm on February 24 1953 the hangman at Warsaw's Mokotow prison looped a rope around his neck. The site of his grave is unknown.
Maria Fieldorf-Czarska was informed of his death three days later, when she visited the General Prosecutor's office, looking for news of her father. None of those involved in his arrest, imprisonment and death could have imagined that their actions would return to haunt them, thanks to the persistence of his daughter and the collapse of an ideology that once ruled half a continent. Now 73, and living in Gdansk, Mrs Fieldorf-Czarska is a sprightly and hospitable woman. Her small flat is decorated with pictures of General Fieldorf, proud and upright in his Home Army uniform.
It was a letter she wrote in May 1996 to the Warsaw Military Prosecutor, asking for the names of those involved in her father's arrest and interrogation, that triggered the legal process for extradition of Helena Brus. "I did this so that justice can be done and that the people who brought my father to his death should be held responsible. Helena Wolinska brought this case on fabricated evidence and my father was unlawfully arrested. She issued the arrest warrant as a military prosecutor and then gave the case to the general prosecutor."
The reply came October 1997, that the Warsaw Military Prosecutor had begun to investigate General Fieldorf's arrest. Most of the others involved are now dead, but Wolinska was traced to Oxford.
"She should confess that she is guilty and that what she did was unlawful.Whether or not she should go to prison is a decision for the courts. But if she confesses and asks for forgiveness, we should forgive her."
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