BEAR NECESSITIES   1 comment

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Wojtek liked nothing better than a beer and a smoke

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For the many Polish soldiers who fled to Britain after the war, in order to escape Stalin’s ill intentions, Wojtek the bear became a poignant symbol of their fate. An orphaned bearcub, who travelled far from his Persian home, who fought in a great battle on foreign soil, and who ended up not only an exile, but an inmate at Edinburgh Zoo – the story resonated with the Polish diaspora in post-war Britain. My father (also Wojtek and also newly landed on Scottish soil after years of fighting) once went to visit his namesake the Soldier Bear with some regimental buddies. When they shouted over the cage to him, this kind-hearted ursine wonder perked up immediately. Everyone said he best understood Polish for that was the language of his youth, and acted much like a soldier, for that was the life he had led.

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Wojtek bear 7

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POLISH RESETTLEMENT CORP

Wojtek the Soldier Bear and thousands of Polish soldiers followed the same route to Britain. On 22nd May 1946, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin announced the creation of the Polish Resettlement Corp, which was a holding unit for the Polish forces who had fought for the Allies and didn’t wish to return to Poland. 160,000 qualified and 115,000 joined. Many soldiers brought family members with them and over 200,000 Poles eventually moved to Britain. They signed up to the Corps on a two-year contract, were paid British Armed Forces rates, and could avail of various opportunities for training and tuition. They could also be hired out to private contractors, and thus gain work experience. My father would do a stint in a pipe factory in Derby with a whole platoon of Poles. They transported the soldiers to Britain by ship. Ship after ship made this voyage, what would become the final stage of the exodus of Poles, the last shore.

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Wojtek Edinburgh

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PRIVATE BEAR

Wojtek was a most extraordinary soldier, and an even more remarkable bear. ‘Private Bear’, of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, was a beer-swigging, cigarette-smoking Syrian Brown Bear. He had been found by a shepherd boy in Hamadan, Iran. The bear’s mother had been killed by hunters. The boy sold the cub to some Polish soldiers traveling through the desert.  In 1942, the Polish Army was assembling in the Middle East, after Stalin, his hand forced by Operation Barbarossa, had agreed to allow all Poles on Soviet territory (i.e. prisoners) to leave in order to form the Polish II Corp (see Sikorski-Mayski Agreement). The soldiers looked after the little cub, weaning him on condensed milk, and Wojtek became the Company mascot. He traveled with the army through Iraq and Palestine to Egypt.

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Wojtek Bear 2

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It was from there that the II Corps was to set sail for Italy and, ultimately, the Battle of Monte Cassino. Despite a restriction on the transportation of animals, Wojtek’s fame and official designation as a serving private in the Polish Army (with official pay and double rations on account of his size) meant the regulations were waived.

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Wojtek Bear 3

smarter than the average bear

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At Monte Cassino, in the raging battles which ensued, Wojtek carried artillery shells. He could carry as many as four soldiers. He stood on his hind legs and transported the 100 pound shells in his two front paws. As a reward, the soldiers used to give Wojtek beer, which became his favourite drink, and complemented his appetite for smoking and eating tobacco.

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Wojtek Bear 5

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He later sailed with his fellow soldiers to Scotland and lived in the village of Hutton until he was demobilized in 1947, with the rank of Corporal. He would spend his retirement in Edinburgh Zoo, living to the ripe old age of 21. The 22nd Artillery Supply Company’s official emblem became an image of Wojtek carrying a shell. After the war, Polish soldiers used to visit him in the zoo. They went there specifically to see him, and his old war buddies and comrades-in-arms would sneak him in beers and toss cigarettes into his cage. You could tell he was Polish then.

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Wojtek Bear 4

‘the right to bear arms’

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If you want to know more about Wojtek, visit Wojtek – the Soldier Bear – Niedźwiedź Żołnierz, where Richard Lucas and friends bring together all things Wojtek-ian, as well as promoting the film Wojtek the Bear that Went to War.

And here is Maria Dłużewska’s excellent documentary on Wojtek and those who fought with him and who recount his significance for the Polish diaspora. Wojciech Narebski summarizes the bond forged between the soldiers and the bear:

“The fate of Wojtek was very similar to many soldiers’ fate. A Persian orphan who became polonized, and we who went through Russia, were in Siberia, Kazakhstan, and left the graves of our closest relatives, parents, siblings. Maybe that’s why we got on with him so well, we sympathized with him. And many of us who were afraid to return to Poland became emigrants. Wojtek did too.”

 

 

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One response to “BEAR NECESSITIES

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  1. Dear Great God! Lovely story, lovely bear…

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