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Wojtek The Bear Honours Polish Soldiers

Wojtek the bear's unlikely journey to Scotland—and into the annals of military history—began in Iran when a group of Polish soldiers adopted an orphaned brown bear cub.

In the spring of 1942 the newly formed Anders Army left the Soviet Union for Iran (then Persia), accompanied by thousands of Polish civilians who had been deported to the gulags following the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939.

During a rest stop near the town of Hamadan while en route to Tehran on 8 April 1942, a group of Polish soldiers encountered a young Iranian boy who had found a bear cub after its mother had been shot by hunters. One of the civilian refugees in their midst, eighteen-year-old Irena Bokiewicz, was very taken with the cub, which prompted lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki to purchase the young bear, who spent the next three months in the Polish refugee camp that was established near Tehran, principally under the care of Irena. In August the bear was donated to the 2nd Transport Company, which later became the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, and he was given the name Wojtek by the soldiers.

Wojtek initially had problems swallowing and was fed with condensed milk from an old vodka bottle. He was subsequently given fruit, marmalade, honey and syrup, and was often rewarded with beer, which became his favourite drink. He later also enjoyed smoking (or eating) cigarettes. He loved wrestling with the soldiers and was taught to salute when greeted. Wojtek became quite an attraction for soldiers and civilians alike, and soon became an unofficial mascot of all units stationed nearby. With the 22nd Company he moved to Iraq and then through Syria, Palestine and Egypt.

The soldiers were members of the Polish 2nd Corps, a military unit consisting of Polish political prisoners released from Soviet gulags by Stalin after the Nazi invasion of the USSR. As they left their places of internment and moved west to join the fight against the Axis, the bear cub they adopted quickly became a popular and important boost to morale. By the time the 2nd Corps reached Egypt and prepared to transfer to the Italian war zone, the now-fully-grown bear had learned to salute and carry supplies and enjoyed drinking beer, eating cigarettes, wrestling with the soldiers, and swimming whenever he had the chance.

Going into active combat, however, presented a problem, as soldiers were forbidden from bringing pets into theaters of operation (and by this point the bear had, by all accounts, thoroughly imprinted on the soldiers who had raised him). Thus, the bear was enlisted into the 22nd Artillery Transport Company of the 2nd Corps and accordingly given an official number, the rank of private, and the name Wojtek—a common Polish name meaning “joyful warrior.”

Private Wojtek served for the remainder of the war, most notably during the Battle of Monte Cassino, in which he helped to move crates of ammunition—with two hands, while standing upright, because he thought he was people. The Battle of Monte Cassino opened the road to Rome for the Allies. Wojtek was so popular among his fellow soldiers that a graphic of a bear carrying an artillery shell became the official emblem of the 22nd Company.

After the war ended, Wojtek’s company was transferred to southeastern Scotland. Having experienced Soviet repression firsthand, most of the soldiers refused to return to Poland after the Iron Curtain fell, and chose instead to remain in Scotland in exile. Once the 22nd Company was demobilized in 1947, Wojtek was moved to the Edinburgh Zoo. His old Polish brothers-in-arms visited him regularly, as did the scores of new admirers he gained during the remainder of his life. He died in 1963, at the age of 22.

Following the end of World War II in 1945, Wojtek was transported to Berwickshire in Scotland with the rest of the 22nd Company. They were stationed at Winfield Airfield on Sunwick Farm, near the village of Hutton, Scottish Borders. Wojtek soon became popular among local civilians and the press, and the Polish-Scottish Association made him one of its honorary members.

Following demobilisation on 15 November 1947, Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the rest of his life, often visited by journalists and former Polish soldiers, some of whom would toss him cigarettes, which he proceeded to eat because there was no one there to light them for him.

Media attention contributed to Wojtek's popularity. He was a frequent guest on BBC television's Blue Peter programme for children.

Wojtek died in December 1963, at the age of 21. At the time of his death he weighed nearly 500 pounds (230 kg) and was over 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall.

Among the many memorials commemorating the soldier-bear are plaques in the Imperial War Museum in London and Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, as well as a sculpture by artist David Harding in the Sikorski Museum (also in London) and a carved wooden sculpture in Weelsby Woods, Grimsby.

On 25 April 2013, Kraków city council decided to erect a statue of Wojtek in Park Jordana. It was unveiled on 18 May 2014 - the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino.

On 16 September 2013 the City of Edinburgh Council approved the erection of a bronze statue of Wojtek to stand in the city's Princes Street Gardens. It was unveiled on 7 November 2015 and represents Wojtek and a Polish Army Soldier walking in peace and unity. A 4 m (13 ft) long relief documents his journey from Egypt to Scotland alongside the Polish Army.

On 30 December 2011, a film, Wojtek – The Bear That Went to War, was broadcast on BBC Two Scotland.

British songwriter Katy Carr released a music video called 'Wojtek,' on 17 September 2014 - the 75th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland.

Unveiled on Nov. 7 2015, the bronze statue in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh commemorates not only the much-beloved bear but also the Polish soldiers who bravely shared the same harrowing journey and ultimately found refuge in Scotland. Commissioned by the Wojtek Memorial Trust, the project likewise pays tribute to the resultant close ties between Scotland and Poland.

The Beartown Brewery in Cheshire, England makes a beer named in honour of Wojtek, which we feel sure he would have greatly approved of!

Sources: Wikipedia, David at atlasobscura, Wojtek Memorial Trust

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SY 3 Dec 2015

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