Archive feature: the Wojtek story
In this web-only feature, originally published in May 2011, Kenny Hodgart explores the history of Wojtek, the soldier bear.
In his own lifetime, Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear adopted by Polish soldiers in the Second World War, was a celebrity among his comrades. Seven decades on, in Scotland, his legend is undergoing a renaissance thanks to the efforts both of the Polish community itself and of local artists and writers.
Acquired as an orphaned cub in Iran, the young Wojtek was soon well-travelled: with the Artillery Supply Command of the Polish Second Corps he saw fighting in the deserts of north Africa, where the Second Corps joined the British fight against Rommel’s forces, and in Italy.
Following demobilisation to Berwickshire, Wojtek lived his days out at Edinburgh Zoo. The image of him that abides, however, is of a honey-loving, beer-drinking war hero who loved to wrestle his mates and would salute when greeted by them.
“He didn’t think he was a bear; he thought he was a soldier,” says Krystyna Ivell, who was a girl when she and her mother were released from internment in Siberia in 1941 and fled, along with thousands of others, via the ‘Persian Corridor’, to the Middle East.
“I never met him, but we followed his footsteps. Everyone knew of Wojtek. He was essential to the soldiers. He wasn’t a cuddly toy or a cartoon character; he was a serious morale-booster for them. They might be killed or they might lose their friends, but here was this animal that kept their sanity in a way. They gave him amusement and affection and he returned it in spades.”
Experiences in the Polish army
Wojtek’s daily rations included two bottles of beer, and he also enjoyed cigarettes – either smoking them or swallowing them whilst lit. By the time the Allies pushed into Italy he was officially a private. After the battle of Monte Cassino, his regiment adopted the likeness of a bear carrying a shell as its official insignia.
“Brown bears are not usually especially friendly to humans, but the fact he was raised by humans and grew used to human contact made him who he was and meant that he could live with the soldiers,” says Raymond Russell, senior carnivore keeper at Edinburgh Zoo. “When he came to the zoo there are lots of stories that his old friends would come and visit and occasionally they would jump the fence and give him a cuddle or a bottle of beer. If he heard the Polish language spoken he would often perk up.”
In recent years there has been renewed interest in Wojtek’s story, coinciding with the arrival in Scotland of thousands of Poles following their country’s ascension to the EU in 2004. An illustrated book for children, written by Garry Paulin and published in 2008, was followed in 2010 by Aileen Orr’s major study of Wojtek’s life, Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero, and the Edinburgh playwright Catherine Grosvenor is now working on a play about him.
Tributes and memorials
Meanwhile, the Scottish Polish Cultural Association is campaigning to raise funds for a permanent statue of Wojtek in Edinburgh to be based on a maquette by the sculptor Alan Herriot. An earlier sculpture, by David Harding, was housed in the old Porthouse hotel, next to Edinburgh Zoo, before it became a Holiday Inn, and now resides at the Sikorski Institute in London.
Another tribute to Wojtek stands in the Polish Memorial Garden in Redbraes, a neighbourhood in Bonnington, near Leith in Edinburgh. Jarek Gasiorek, a member of the Scottish Polish Cultural Association who lives in Leith, explained how it came about. “The idea came from a local police officer, Simon Daly, whose goal was to make Scottish and Polish people work and do things together,” he said. “There are a lot of Polish people living in this area of the city and the Polish Memorial Garden grew out of a desire to recognise that.
“Remembrance Day is the same date as Polish Independence Day, so every November we gather in the Garden. There is a war memorial and also a memorial to Wojtek, so it is now a tradition that people bring teddy bears as well as poppies to the garden. They’re then donated to a charity for sick children.”
For Krystyna Ivell – who curated an exhibition at the Sikorski Institute in 2010 – Wojtek’s story has a universal appeal that draws people in to discover more about the past in all its shades of grey. “A lot of people in Poland under Communism weren’t allowed to know the history of how people were deported and how they formed an army once they were released,” she says. “Many Poles found freedom in Britain after the war, but it was not always easy for them. Wojtek’s story attracts people and through him they can learn about that history.”