As far as reading goes, we all have our guilty pleasures. Now I’ll admit mine — I’m nuts about animals. If it’s cute and furry, just pass the book this way. Only this time I think I’ve met my match with a true tale about a bear that’s not only incredibly endearing, brave, and kind-hearted but also historically significant. Meet Wojtek The Bear: Polish War Hero by Aileen Orr which recounts the true story of Private Wojtek (pronounced Voy-chek) who was enrolled in the twenty-second Company of the Polish Army Corps during World War Two, where he served not only as a mascot but as an active participant in battle.
His saga began in 1942 when Polish soldiers, recently freed from the Soviet gulag and serving with the British in Iran, bought the bear from a local child. Raised from a cub, Wojtek — which means happy warrior — modeled himself on the soldiers and thought himself one of them. He became tame, wandering around the camp, scarfing cookies and other treats, putting away a beer or two with his mates, and enjoying cigarettes, which he didn’t smoke, but ate lit (Just in case you’re skeptical about his antics, there are lots of photos in the book, and you can check Wojtek’s website at wojtekthebear.com). His transport unit made its way through Palestine, Syria, Iraq and Egypt before shipping off to Italy to the horrific battle of Monte Cassino. There Wojtek distinguished himself by hauling artillery shells to the front lines under enemy fire with no prompting from anyone. Polish forces won the battle, but at war’s end, unable to return to their occupied country, they were allowed by the British to decamp in Scotland.
Eventually Wojtek “retired” to the Edinburgh Zoo, where the author of this book met him when she was eight years old. Orr had never forgotten the bear’s happy wave when she said “hello” to him in Polish. Yet what makes this book more than a funny ursine version of MASH is the skillful way in which the author allows the dreadful situation of the Polish soldiers to shadow Wojtek’s often hilarious antics. The bear caper was, from the start, the act of men who’d lost everything to the Soviets — wives, children, families, possessions, homeland. Wojtek answered a need to give and receive both love and comfort, and it was a testament to these soldiers that despite their suffering in forced-labour camps, they were still capable of showing affection and kindness to an orphaned bear. One of the men, Lance Corporal Peter Prendys, acted as his chief caretaker, and as the story unfolds, Aileen Orr describes Peter’s relationship with Wojtek and gives us a sense of how the bear was solace for much of what he’d lost. Turning him over to the zoo was heartbreaking, as were the losses of war that were never redeemed, including the “big power” machinations that silenced Poland for generations.
The political cruelty of the war’s aftermath gives a thoughtful tone to this charming and nicely-written book. Its author spearheaded a successful campaign to erect a memorial in Edinburgh depicting Wojtek and his keeper, Peter Prendys. And oh yes, Wojtek has a Facebook page called Wojtek the Soldier Bear. Count me in as a fan.
That’s Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero by Aileen Orr, published in 2010 by Birlinn Limited in Edinburgh, Scotland.