Tag Archives: Wojtek the Bear

What Is It About Wojtek?

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.

From all accounts, Wojtek seemed to think he was a man, like his army buddies. Maybe he’s just us without the bad stuff.

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.

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Bear With Me — A Soldier’s Tale

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.

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