From Holocaust to hunted at 88
Brus, the widow of a distinguished Oxford professor, leads a quiet,
almost reclusive life in an apartment on the edge of the famous
university town where she and her late husband settled in 1972.
But Wolinska-Brus, 88, has not been forgotten in her native Poland,
where the government has spent nine years trying to bring her back to
stand trial for her role in the 1953 judicial murder of one of the
country's greatest anti-Nazi military heroes.
Late last year the Polish government filed a European arrest warrant
for Wolinska-Brus that would appear to give the British government
little choice but to arrest her. This follows two lengthy extradition
attempts that were rejected by the British government, citing her
Wolinska-Brus declined requests to be interviewed, but it is clear
from archival material and information gleaned from people who know
her that she lived a life buffeted by all the traumas of Europe's
turbulent 20th Century. The rise and fall of Hitler and Stalin, the
Holocaust, anti-Semitism, the Cold War and its aftermath all played
significant roles in shaping her career.
Those traumas left Europe with psychological wounds that have yet to
heal. In Poland, the government argues they never will heal unless
figures like Wolinska-Brus are brought to justice, and that time is
running out to try them.
Others, including Wolinska-Brus, contend she is a scapegoat.
The British government is understandably queasy about arresting an 88-
year-old Holocaust survivor and bundling her back to Poland.
She was born Fajga Mindla-Danielak in Warsaw. Wolinska was the name
that appeared on her forged documents when she joined the Polish
underground after the Nazi invasion. By all accounts, she served
valiantly, risking her life as courier in the Warsaw ghetto.
Most of her family perished in the Holocaust. She was captured by the
Nazis and put on a train to Treblinka but managed to escape before it
"I slipped off and just walked away slowly," she said in a 1998
British newspaper interview. "I knew I would die anyway if I stayed
on the train. But they didn't shoot."
The main branch of the Polish resistance was loyal to the Polish
government-in-exile based in London.
Its pilots flew with the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain and
its soldiers fought alongside American forces at Monte Cassino. Known
as the Home Army, its goal was a democratic Poland.
Wolinska-Brus served with a different, much smaller branch of the
resistancethe communist People's Guard, which was controlled by
Moscow. It also fought fiercely against the Nazis, but with a
different political agenda.
When Harry Truman and Winston Churchill ceded Poland to Josef Stalin
at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, members of the People's Guard
became the vanguard of the new communist state.
Smart and ambitious, Wolinska-Brus rose quickly through the ranks.
By 1950 she was Col. Wolinska-Brus and served as a senior military
prosecutor in the Warsaw district.
It is not clear when she married a young economist, Wlodzimierz Brus,
but they became separated during the war and each presumed the other
was dead. They found each other at the war's end but didn't resume
Instead, she began a relationship with Franciszek Jozwiak, the head
of the People's Army and later deputy prime minister.
At that time, Poland's emerging Stalinist regime was consolidating
its power by eliminating all potential rivals.
Its main concern was the disbanded Home Army. From 1948 to 1956, more
than 60,000 Home Army veterans were hunted down, arrested and
dispatched to the Soviet gulag.
As a senior military prosecutor, according to Polish officials and
historians, Col. Wolinska-Brus signed patently false indictments
against senior Home Army officers already in prison. These officers
were then given a quick show trial and executed.
A war hero is hanged in 1953
One of them was Gen. Emil Fieldorf, commander of Home Army forces on
Polish territory during the war. Fieldorf was responsible for some of
the resistance fighters' greatest successes against the Nazis.
Poland's communist regime declared him a "fascist-Hitlerite criminal."
After an eight-hour trial, Fieldorf was hanged on Feb. 24, 1953. His
body has never been recovered.
The archives indicate that Wolinska-Brus did not actively fabricate
evidence against or prosecute Fieldorf. She merely signed the papers.
By 1956, Wolinska-Brus had left the military, ended her relationship
with Jozwiak and remarried Brus, then a professor at Warsaw
She took a job working for the Communist Party's Institute of Social
Science; he served the party as an economic adviser. But the couple's
careers took a turn for the worse in 1968 when a party power struggle
resulted in an anti-Semitic purge.
The couple left Poland in 1971 and were granted political asylum in
Britain. The Cold War was at its height, and as persecuted Jews from
behind the Iron Curtain, few questions were asked.
A year later, Wlodzimierz Brus secured a teaching post at Oxford,
where his work on market socialism was much admired. Colleagues say
his wife was reclusive.
After communism's collapse, Poland's new leaders quickly
rehabilitated the reputations of heroes such as Fieldorf. They also
began going through the files and building criminal cases against
those responsible for the worst of the Stalin-era crimes. In 1999 the
Polish government asked for Wolinska-Brus' extradition.
She replied with disdain: The charges were "idiotic," she said, and
Poland was a "despicable" country.
"If they don't like you, they accuse you of being an ex-communist and
a Jew," she told The Jewish Chronicle, a prominent British
publication. She vowed to never return to "the land of Auschwitz and
But while anti-Semitism is a touchy issue in Poland, "she is being
asked about her responsibility for the death of a very important
Polish hero, and that has nothing to do with being Jewish," said
Rafal Wnuk, a Polish historian and expert on the Stalin era.
One prominent Pole who feels strongly that Wolinska-Brus should stand
trial is Wladyslaw Bartoszewski, a former foreign minister, former
Auschwitz inmate and now a special foreign policy adviser to new
Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Bartoszewski, 82, also served in the Home Army, where he helped
organize Zegota, the Council for Aid to Jews. Although he is not
Jewish, his efforts were recognized by Israel, which made him an
After the war, Bartoszewski was among the thousands of Home Army
officers arrested by communist authorities. He was charged with
"I have a copy of an original document signed by Wolinska-Brus. ...
It is her signature on the indictment against me, dated 1952. I was
sentenced to 8 years in prison for espionage," he said in a telephone
"She never saw me or questioned me, never interrogated me," he
said. "I didn't know anything about her. It was only years later that
I found out about her."
Anti-Semitism a red herring?
Bartoszewski said that "anti-Semitism does not come into
consideration in this case," nor should Wolinska-Brus' age be used as
an argument to drop the charges.
"I'm not saying she should sit in prison, no," he said. "But there is
the value of social education [in trying her], and historical truth
requires that we do not put our heads in the sand."
In 1989, when Tadeusz Mazowiecki became Poland's first democratically
elected prime minister, he called on the nation to draw a "thick
line" under its past.
The idea was that Poland's new democracy should not become bogged
down in settling scores with the past.
Following that advice has proved difficult for Poland and several
other former communist countries in Central Europe.
"The 'thick line' didn't mean criminals should go unpunished,"
Bartoszewski said. "It was one thing to be a communist, and another
to be someone who was in the KGB."
The last Polish government, headed by Prime Minister Jaroslaw
Kaczynski (whose twin, Lech, is still president), often seemed to be
obsessed with score-settling. That, according to many analysts, is
part of the reason it was defeated in October's election.
But the change hasn't helped Wolinska-Brus. The new government in
Warsaw seems to feel strongly that she should have her day in court.
After Poland's first extradition request was turned down by the Home
Office, it filed another in 2001. That one was rejected in 2006.
Undeterred, Poland is trying a different approach.
As a member of the European Union, it has access to a powerful new
legal tool: the European arrest warrant, designed to harmonize legal
systems of EU members, remove political questions from the
extradition process and speed the hand-over of people charged with
British authorities declined to comment on the case, but it appears
likely they will have to arrest Wolinska-Brus. She then would be
entitled to a hearing within 21 days at which she could raise issues
of religious persecution or her age.
This time the case will be decided by a judge, not the Home Office.