This year marks 10 years since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which triggered the end of the Soviet bloc and, ultimately, the Soviet Union itself. A decade after those first slabs of masonry came crashing down, the noise reverberates still across the lands where the Red Star of Russia once ruled unchallenged.
For nations, like people, suffer from the traumas that twist and shape their psyche: traumas of war and occupation, resistance and collaboration with dictatorships, Nazi or Soviet.
It is perhaps difficult for citizens of Britain, a country that has not been occupied for centuries, to imagine the mental scars left by Nazi and Soviet occupation and the choices of collaboration and compromise demanded by a reign of terror.
Now officials are grappling with the question of how to bring to account those Communist officials who organised systematic human rights abuses including judicially-sanctioned torture and murder.
Polish officials are now seeking the extradition of two alleged Communist- era criminals: Helena Brus, a former military prosecutor, now living in Oxford, and Salomon Morel, one-time commander of a Soviet detention camp, now living in Tel Aviv. “This is payback time for the Stalinist period. The same excuses were given by Nazi war criminals. They said they were innocent because they were just following orders,” said Zbigniew Wolak, veteran in the Polish Home Army, many of whose comrades were killed or imprisoned on their return to post-war Communist Poland by the Soviets and their local supporters.
“You cannot punish the hundreds of thousands of people who were involved, but you can bring to justice those who were prominent. This is a battle for the memory of future generations. Either they will know the truth or it will be hidden.”
But who to bring to justice, when the very nature of a totalitarian regime means that almost every citizen was, by their complicity in its demands, implicated to a greater or lesser degree, in its continuance? Perfectly preserved for decades in the vaults of national memory, these events are now rising to the surface of the consciousness of nations such as Poland, triggering a spate of attempts by legal officials to win what they believe is belated justice, but what others call veng-eance – a vengeance forged on the anvil of ancient prejudices.
The attempt by Polish authorities to force the extradition of Helena Brus, a former Stalinist-era military prosecutor in 1950s Warsaw, from Britain, has highlighted an issue that is set to haunt the new democracies of post-Communist eastern Europe for years to come. Last week, Poland’s Supreme Court quashed an arrest warrant for Mrs Brus, formerly Wolinska.
Now married to an Oxford don, Wlodzimierz Brus, fellow of Wolfson College, Mrs Brus was accused of issuing an illegal arrest warrant for General August Emil Fieldorf, a leader of the Polish Home Army, who was hanged in 1953. Her case is likely to go to appeal.
Salomon Morel is wanted by the prosecutor in the southern Polish city of Katowice, charged with crimes against humanity while he was commander of Swietochlowice camp. More than 3,000 prisoners, mainly Germans, were held at the camp during 1945; more than half died or were murdered, according to the Polish news agency. Israel has refused his extradition, saying that the crimes with which he is charged are not seen there as genocide, and so are subject to statutes of limitations.
Dorota Boriczek, now 68 and living in Ludwigsberg, Germany, was taken to Swietochlowice when she was 14, with her mother. Morel was a cruel and barbaric man, she said. “He was young and very brutal. He came in at night, we could hear the cries of the men as they were beaten, then they threw the bodies out.” Two straightforward cases, then, of two aged, alleged criminals, with blood on their hands, either directly or indirectly, finally being called to account.
Except that these cases are anything but straightforward. Both Mr Brus and Mr Morel are Jewish, Holocaust survivors who lost many in their families to the Nazis. However bloody their hands seem, they were two small cogs in a machine, run by hundreds of thousands of Stalin’s willing functionaries. Many of those officials now live peacefully in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.
During 1997 and 1998, Poland did not make a single extradition request from these countries for former Communist officials, according to the Polish Ministry of Justice. “The evidence against Salomon Morel is very damaging, but why, of all the commanders of the dozens of camps run by the Soviets, pick on him?” asked Konstanty Gebert, editor of the Warsaw- based Jewish magazine Midrasz. “There are no extradition requests to other countries where former NKVD officers must be living.
“The Morel case is very worrying, because when the Poles made the extradition request they must have known that Israel had no legal basis on which to accept it. So either the experts at the Ministry of Justice are incompetent, or this was done to make Israel look bad.”
For Maria Fieldorf-Czarska, who is daughter of the hanged General Fieldorf and is pressing for Mrs Brus’s extradition, Poland has said sorry to Jews too many times. Now it is their turn to apologise to Poland, she claims. Mrs Fieldorf-Czarska, now 73 and living in Gdansk is blunt with her opinions. “The sad truth is that our secret services in the 1950s were dominated by Jews. They were disposed to Communism, perhaps it is genetic. All the people connected with the arrest and prosecution of my father were Jewish, and most of them went to Israel.
“Nobody says sorry to us, but nowadays we have to say sorry to Jews all the time. Our government apologised for the Jews killed by the Germans: now Israel should apologise to us.”