For about a year now I’ve been one of thousands of online folks captivated by the story of a mythic and very real brown bear. I keep wondering why I find the story of Wojtek so compelling, even if the reasons seem obvious. If you follow this blog, you may remember last year’s review of Aileen Orr’s delightful book, Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero. But if you haven’t yet met this brave bruin of World War Two fame, check out his books, websites, Facebook pages, a multilingual online comic from Poland and an excellent BBC documentary, “Wojtek: The Bear That Went to War,” now available on DVD.
The documenting of this long-gone critter fascinates me and many others. Hope in a dreary world, that’s Wojtek.
Wojtek was innocent. He went to war and spread joy and happiness. Orphaned in 1942, he romped and played in the Middle East, didn’t kill anyone (even the spy he trapped in the shower), lugged artillery shells in the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy (but didn’t get PTSD), kept up his ursine taste for sweets, chugged beer, ate lit cigarettes and suffered no lifestyle illnesses. In all of this, he brought out the best in troubled humankind, especially in his Polish comrades, freed from Siberia and based in Iran, exiled from home and family, who were kindhearted enough to love and care for a foundling cub. They enlisted him in the army as their mascot, rewarding him for his voluntary bravery by emblazoning his image (clutching an artillery shell) on their company’s insignia.
It’s hard not to love that big bear Wojtek. He speaks to the heart.
So I dare you to to resist this story. Check those Facebook pages, and you’ll see schoolkids learning about a 200-kilo bear who lumbered through countries that could use a few laughs — Iran, Palestine and Egypt. More good news: Wojtek’s loved in Poland and Scotland, and hailed by the Italian newspaper La Stampa as “l’orso che libero l’Italia” (the bear who liberated Italy). There are war vets alive who still remember him, stacks of wonderful photos online, memorials created and planned, and even a song from Scotland (available on YouTube), where Wojtek “retired” to the Edinburgh Zoo, to die in 1963.
Now a new generation is learning his story, along with the forgotten and distinguished history of the Polish armed forces who befriended Wojtek. Best of all, 2012 marks the late soldier-bear’s seventieth birthday. Spread the word and celebrate! Raise a glass to Wojtek, to his loyalty, bravery and innocence, and to these small gifts that touch our hearts in such mysterious ways.