Warsaw Stories: How a mugging in the park led to a diplomatic spat with the neighbours

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The Independent Online

Warsaw's parks are one of its best features, and Varsovians generally behave impeccably in them. So when it was announced that three children of Russian diplomats had been mugged in one by local thugs, it was a surprise; most of us wouldn't think twice about walking through a park at night.

The incident developed into a diplomatic spat. The Russian government insisted hysterically that the crime proved anti-Russian sentiment was rife in Poland, a claim profoundly wrong in one sense but almost right in another.

The muggers hadn't been trying to strike a blow for Poland against Russia. They were after mobile phones and cash. Although they were reported to have shouted anti-Russian slogans as they carried out the robbery, they were probably just seeking to add insult to injury.

Most anti-Russian prejudice I have encountered comes from middle-class people in Warsaw, who can get alarmingly worked up about what they see as a heathen horde in the east about to devour them and their families.

A troubled history between the two countries explains this to some extent, but there is a degree of snobbery at work, too. While they regard the Russians as quasi-Asiatic and poor, Varsovians show little antipathy towards Germany, which was responsible for turning their city into rubble in 1944. The Germans, you see, are fellow Europeans, and prosperous.

The truth is that Poles have more in common with Russians than they would like to admit. I have seen this at work whenever I have been at the Russian embassy to get a visa. Staff and applicants are comfortable in one another's language, deal with each other courteously and will even share a joke or two: the Slavonic sense of humour transcends borders. Fellow-feeling aside, both sides know they need one another, despite the current squabble.

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Air-raid sirens have been blaring across the city again. They are used to mark sombre occasions, such as the week of mourning that followed Pope John Paul's death in April.

Last week, their gloomy whine announced a minute's silence in commemoration of the Warsaw Uprising against the Nazis, which began at 5pm on 1 August 1944. It was scrupulously observed: not only did pedestrians stop in their tracks, drivers brought their cars to a halt and stood to attention out of respect for those who fell in battle.

There are moves to declare a day of homage in honour of the late Polish Pope, but the death of a figure in his eighties, however venerated, was hardly unexpected. It seems all the more strange when the sacrifice of the young insurgents in 1944, a defining moment in Poland's history, is not yet commemorated by a national holiday.

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I live almost next door to the Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto, which honours the Jews who fought the Nazis before the Warsaw Uprising. Non-Poles often confuse the two events, but not the soldiers of the Israeli army who were gathered at the monument last week.

The visit is part of their training, which demands "Holocaust education". Cadets must tour the sites in Poland where the Nazis carried out their atrocities, the thinking goes, so that they are fully aware of why their nation exists. Yet only a short walk away I encountered a service next to the monument to the Warsaw Uprising. A huge crowd had gathered, mostly of elderly people, some of whom were kneeling on the cobblestones, a common penitential sight at such occasions in Poland.

The Israelis and Poles were oblivious of one another's ceremonies. You would have thought there could have been some sort of gesture to unite them. Remembrance excludes others, it would seem.