Wojtek the Soldier Bear

The story of Wojtek (meaning “the Happy Warrior”) is incredible, heartwarming and sad.
So why haven’t they made the film yet?
Well a book has been published so maybe the film will come.

In 1942 a new Polish army was forming in the Middle East following the release of Polish prisoners and deportees from Soviet camps when Stalin joined the Allies. In the hills of Persia (now Iran) hunters shot a bear cub’s mother; the bear cub was picked up by a young shepherd boy who then sold him to a group of Polish soldiers. As a cub, they played with him, looked after him and fed him condensed milk from a bottle … but Wojtek soon developed a taste for beer, wine and cigarettes. I wonder where he learned that habit? He would accept a lit cigarette, take a puff and then swallow it!

Wojtek spent the war years with the 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division, Polish 2nd Corps. As a small bear he could travel with them in the cab but as he got larger he had to travel in the back with all the supplies. He loved his companions and would sit and eat with them, bathe and wrestle with them – of course, he could get a bit rough so not all the soldiers would dare take him on!

During fighting in north Africa all went well. Wojtek copied what his comrades did and helped move artillery crates seemingly unbothered by the sound of gunfire. He was such a part of the 22nd Transport Company that their emblem became a bear carrying a shell:

But when the Polish 2nd Corps were set to join the war in Europe, the problem arose of what to do with Wojtek. The answer was easy – allow him to become a Polish soldier with paybook, rank and serial number and no one could question his status on transport ships. So, Wojtek ended up supporting the battle at Monte Cassino.

When the war ended, the Company and Wojtek travelled to the UK and were stationed at Winfield Camp, near Hutton in Berwickshire. After a while the solders were demobbed and started leaving to start their new lives and again the question arose of what to do with Wojtek. It came down to a bullet or a zoo. So he moved into his new home at Edinburgh Zoo where he became a very popular attraction. He was particularly happy when ex-Polish servicemen visited him and spoke to him in Polish: a few would even jump the fence much to the horror of other visitors and zookeepers. Then they would look on in amazement as the bear and man would cuddle or wrestle. After all the freedom and comradeship Wojtek had enjoyed, spending his last days in a zoo must have been unimaginably lonely. He craved human contact and died, sadly withdrawn, in 1963.

Wojtek will never be forgotten and a number of exhibitions, memorials and sculptures of this incredible animal exist in Scotland and elsewhere. He was a morale boosting symbol of hope for Polish soldiers everywhere and he returned their care and love with his support and affection.

Links:

Watch a video of the bear wrestling from The One Show  here

or watch a clip from Polish TV (in Polish)  here

See Garry Paulin’s book (in Polish or English) suitable for adults and children:

There’s also lots more information on the web, eg:

http://thesoldierbear.com/wojtek.html

http://wojtek-soldierbear.weebly.com/index.html

http://www.wojtekthebear.com/index.html

~ by marysia on 2 June 2011.

4 Responses to “Wojtek the Soldier Bear”

  1. this is such a lovely story albeit ending on a sad note

  2. […] I recently blogged the story of Wojtek – my blog post […]

  3. […] blogged about Wojtek before here and here and in the comments to this latter one you’ll also see there’s an […]

  4. What a remarkable bear. A real feel good story.

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