Wojtek (bear)

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Wojtek with a Polish soldier

Wojtek (1942–1963; Polish pronunciation: [ˈvɔjtɛk]) usually spelled Voytek in English, was a Syrian brown bear cub found in Iran and adopted by soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. During the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek helped move ammunition. The name "Wojtek" is a diminutive form of "Wojciech", an old Slavic name that is still common in Poland today and means "he who enjoys war" or "smiling warrior".[1]

History[edit]

Polish soldier with Wojtek in Iran 1942.

In 1942, a local boy found a bear cub near Hamadan, Iran, whose mother had been shot. He sold it to Irena (Inka) Bokiewicz, a young Polish refugee walking across the Elbruz mountains as she escaped from the Soviet Union. When he became too big she donated him to the Polish Army.[2] As the bear was less than a year old, he initially had problems swallowing and was fed with condensed milk from an emptied vodka bottle. The bear was subsequently fed with fruit, marmalade, honey and syrup, and was often rewarded with beer, which became his favourite drink. He also enjoyed smoking and eating cigarettes.[3][4] He enjoyed wrestling and was taught to salute when greeted. The bear became quite an attraction for soldiers and civilians alike, and soon became an unofficial mascot of all units stationed nearby. With the company he moved to Iraq and then through Syria, Palestine and Egypt.[5]

Private Wojtek[edit]

To get him on a British transport ship when the unit sailed from Egypt to fight with the British 8th Army in the Italian campaign, he was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a Private and was listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. Henryk Zacharewicz and Dymitr Szawlugo were assigned as his caretakers.

Wojtek with artillery ammo – sign painted on 22nd Artillery Supply Company vehicles[6]

As an officially enlisted "soldier" of the company, he lived with the other men in their tents or in a special wooden crate, which was transported by truck. According to numerous accounts, during the Battle of Monte Cassino Wojtek helped by transporting ammunition – never dropping a single crate.[7] In recognition of the bear's popularity, the HQ approved an effigy of a bear carrying an artillery shell as the official emblem of the 22nd Company (by then renamed to 22nd Transport Company).[5]

Postwar[edit]

Following the end of World War II in 1945, the bear was transported to Berwickshire in Scotland, along with parts of the II Corps. Stationed in the village of Hutton, near Duns, Wojtek soon became popular among local civilians and the press. The Polish-Scottish Association made Wojtek one of its honorary members. Following demobilization on November 15, 1947, Wojtek was given to the Edinburgh Zoo. There he spent the rest of his days, 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.[8] Wojtek died in December 1963, at the age of 22. At the time of his death he weighed nearly 500 pounds (230 kg) and was over 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall.[5]

Media attention contributed to Wojtek's popularity. He was a frequent guest on BBC's Blue Peter program. Among memorial plaques commemorating the bear-soldier are a stone tablet in Edinburgh Zoo, plaques in the Imperial War Museum and Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, as well as a sculpture by artist David Harding in the Sikorski Museum, London and a carved wooden sculpture in Weelsby Woods, Grimsby.[9] There are proposals to erect a memorial in Edinburgh.[10] On 25 April 2013, Kraków city council decided to erect a statue of the bear in Park Jordana one of the city's parks. It was unveiled on 18 May 2014.[11][12]

On December 30, 2011, a film, Wojtek – The Bear That Went to War, was broadcast on BBC2 Scotland.[13]

On September 16, 2013 the City of Edinburgh Council approved the erection of a bronze statue of Wojtek to stand in the city's Princes Street Gardens. The statue is to represent Wojtek and a Polish Army Soldier walking in peace and unity. A 4m long relief will present his journey from Egypt to Scotland alongside the Polish Army.[14][15]

References[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • Anders, Wladyslaw: An Army in Exile, the Story of the Second Polish Corps. London: Macmillan, 1949.
  • Kleczkowski, Stefan: Poland's first 100,000: Story of the Rebirth of the Polish Army, Navy and Air Force After the September Campaign. London, New York: Hutchinson [1945].
  • Morgan, Geoffrey: Wiesław A Lasocki. Soldier Bear. London, Collins, 1970. ISBN 0-00-211793-2.
  • Dumon Tak, Bibi: Soldier Bear. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8028-5375-2.
  • Orr, Aileen: Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero. Edinburgh, Birlinn Publishers, 2012. ISBN 978-1-84341-057-7.
  • Ivell, Krystyna and Baczor, Vic Wojtek Album. London, Self-published, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9926327-0-0

External links[edit]