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Wojtek the soldier bear

2013/05/07

It has recently been announced that the first Polish statue to ‘Wojtek the soldier bear’ is to be unveiled in the General Anders textile school in Żagan on 6 June, 2013. This follows the decision of Kraków city council to erect a statue of Wojtek in the city’s Jordan Park. So who was Wojtek, and why is a bear being commemorated some 50 years after his death?

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Wojtek

The story of ‘Wojtek the soldier bear’ begins in the spring of 1942, when some Polish soldiers in Persia, freshly released from Soviet captivity, came across an orphaned Syrian brown bear cub, kept in a bag by a shepherd boy. They bought the bear cub from the boy, adopted him, and gave him the name ‘Wojtek’. He was fed up with canned condensed milk, until he reached a height of one meter eighty, and a weight of around two hundred kilos. When the soldiers were transfered from Persia to Palestine, Wojtek went with them.

Having become accustomed to humans from a young age, it appears Wojtek thought of himself as being ‘human’. He even adopted the vices of the soldiers around him, enjoying beer and wine, and taking puffs from lit cigarettes when offered to him. He grew fit and strong, and enjoyed bathing and wrestling, although few soldiers were willing to take him on, on account of his sharp claws which would tear their uniforms. Wojtek loved to entertain others, and created a sensation everywhere he went. The bear made friends with other army mascots, including Kasha the monkey and Kirkuk the dog. He further endeared himself to his companions when he captured a thief who had broken into the ammunition dump where he had been sleeping.

In 1943, General Anders’ Polish army were to leave Palestine for the front in Italy, and animals were not permitted to accompany the soldiers. To get around this regulation, it was decided to make Wojtek a soldier, with his own paybook, rank and serial number. Allowances were made for his size, and he was given double the rations of an ordinary soldier.

Always inquisitive and keen to copy what others were doing, Wojtek assisted the soldiers of the 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division, of the Polish 2nd Corps during the battle of Monte Cassino. This led to the image of ‘the soldier bear’ being incorporated into the official badge of the company.

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Wojtek carrying a shell – the emblem of the 22nd company

When the Second World War ended in 1945, Wojtek was first sent with his regiment to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Following demobilisation, he was given a home in Edinburgh zoo where he was often visited by his former comrades-in-arms who would speak to him in Polish and toss him cigarettes.

Wojtek, the soldier bear, died in Edinburgh at the age of twenty-two.

 

 

English editor, A native of the Isle of Wight, Warren has been running the language teaching company, Go! Languages, with his wife Małgorzata, since 1997. A fan of England, Portsmouth F.C. and Pogoń Szczecin, Warren will be contribing articles on football for the Szczecinian.

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