In April 1942, several of these Polish units landed in Persia and began a trek through a mountainous area heading toward Egypt and Palestine to re-group under the direction of the British Army.
While in the mountains, the story goes that a group of soldiers happened on an Iranian shepherd boy who had found an orphaned Syrian brown bear cub. (Supposedly the mother had been shot and killed.) Food was scarce, so the boy agreed to trade the cub to the soldiers for some canned meat.
Whether that’s actually how it happened or not, the soldiers did acquire a bear cub during their journey. They named him Wojtek, pronounced “Voytek”, meaning “he who enjoys war” or “smiling warrior.”
The bear quickly became something of a mascot for the soldiers, and then much more. As the author of Voytek the Soldier Bear, Garry Paulin, stated:
The Polish soldiers had come from nothing, had lost everything during the war. The bear became so much more than just a mascot to them. He was a real boost to their moral.
At this point, Wojtek became an unofficial member of the 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division, Polish II Corp. When the company relocated to Iraq, then Syria, Palestine and Egypt, Wojtek moved with it.
While Wojtek was young, the soldiers nursed him with condensed milk placed in empty vodka bottles, then fed him fruit, honey and syrup until he was able to eat more solid foods. Knowing little about the care and feeding of bears, they eventually treated him as if he were just another solider, including giving him beer rations, which quickly became his favorite beverage. He also developed other vices over the years like smoking and eating cigarettes.
Despite his smoking habit and seemingly a lack of proper nutrition for a bear, Wojtek grew to be a nice sized brown bear standing in at about 6 feet tall and weighing around 485 pounds. His favorite pastime was wrestling his comrades, though he also enjoyed a good game of tug of war.
Besides these activities, Wojtek enjoyed playing with other animals. He was best friends with a Dalmatian belonging to a British liaison officer. The two animals would play and wrestle together. Not all animals were open to befriending the bear though. Wojtek at one point approached a horse in a field and was kicked in the head and neck several times. He reportedly stayed away from horses and mules after that.
In Palestine, Wojtek inadvertently helped capture a thief who broke into an ammunition compound. To the thief’s surprise, besides ammunition, he found Wojtek, who often slept in there. Upon seeing the bear, the would-be thief made quite a commotion, which alerted the soldiers who then arrested the man. Wojtek was rewarded with a bottle of beer.
As the Polish Army came closer to entering the war zone in Italy in 1943, the soldiers pondered the problem of Wojtek’s status, in that if he was to continue to accompany them, they’d be bringing him to the front line. This problem came to a head in 1944 in Egypt when the soldiers were headed to Naples. The port authorities refused to let the bear board the ship.
They solved the problem by giving Wojtek his own paybook, rank and serial number. They even taught him how to salute like a proper soldier. After the paperwork was filed, he was officially a member of the Polish Army in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps, and he was now allowed on the ship.
In Naples, it was British Courier Archibald Brown’s job to help process Polish soldiers that had just arrived from Egypt to advance with British soldiers against German and Italian forces. But when he called Wojtek’s name, no one answered.
“We looked at the roster, and there was only one person, Corporal Wojtek, who had not appeared,” Brown said in an interview years later. So he asked the other soldiers why Wojtek didn’t come forward. An amused soldier replied: “Well, he only understands Polish and Persian.” To his great surprise, Brown was led to a cage holding a full-grown bear.
Wojtek soon proved he was more than just a mascot when, during the series of assaults known as the Battle of Monte Cassino, he put his strength to good use after being trained to carry heavy crates filled with mortar shells from the supply trucks, delivering them to the men operating the large guns on the front line.
At the end of the war, about 3,000 Polish soldiers and their bear ended up being stationed in Berwickshire, Scotland for nearly two years. As the soldiers were demobilized in 1947 and sent home, they said some heart wrenching goodbyes to Wojtek.
For his part, Wojtek found a home in the Edinburgh Zoo where he became a popular attraction. Many of his Polish servicemen friends visited him at the zoo over the years. As one of the zookeepers there said,
…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 the wild, Syrian brown bears typically live to about 20-30 years old. However, in captivity they can potentially live as long as 48 years, but it was not to be for Wojtek. He died in December of 1963 at the age of just 22.
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- Over the years, Wojtek became a symbol of solidarity between Poland and Scotland. In 2009, Scottish Parliament held a reception in Wojtek’s honor and in 2011, a parade through Edinburgh included a eulogy, in Polish, to the bear-soldier. Donations from people all over the world paid for a large bronze statue of Wojtek in Edinburgh which was officially approved by the Kraków council on April 25, 2013.
- As you might expect, once he was full grown, fewer and fewer of the soldiers would challenge Wojtek to wrestling matches as he was, well, a bear. However, he learned that if he was too rough with them, they wouldn’t wrestle anymore and so was generally very gentle and even would let an occasional soldier win a match.
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