Wojtek (Vojtek), the Syrian bear that garnered fame during the World War 2, led an interesting life, to say at least. This beer-drinking, Nazi-fighting bear was just a cub when he was found by the Polish army, but he went on to do great things that led to numerous statues of him being built. This is his story.
Polish prisoners and an Iranian bear
It was spring of 1942 and tens of thousands of polish prisoners, captured during the soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 where released from the soviet gulags in Siberia.
These men and women, held in soviet forced labor camps, formed a military unit, later known as Ander’s army, and with the remaining polish civilians headed out from Siberia to the Middle East, to rendezvous with British forces.
It was on this trip, on April 8th, during one of their stops near the town of Hamadan in Iran, when the army was approached by a young shepherd boy, who had a non- descript sack with him.
In this sac was a small ball of fur, a bear cub, weak and hungry, whose mother was shot by hunters.
One of the refugees, an eighteen year old girl Irena Bokiewicz, fell for the little bear, which didn’t go unnoticed by lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki who traded some food and supplies for the cub.
The young bear stayed in the polish refugee camp that was formed near Tehran, a province of Iran, where it was cared for and nursed back to health by Irena.
After around three months have passed, the bear was given away to the 2nd Transport Company, which later was reformed into the 22nd Artillery Supply Company, where he was named Wojtek by the soldiers, which is one of the oldest Slavic names and a common polish name.
At first, as Wojtek was very small and had problems swallowing, he had to be given condensed milk from an improvised baby bottle made out of an old vodka bottle.
As he grew older and bigger, he was fed fruit, marmalade and honey, but as he was growing up among the rugged polish soldiers, he grew fond of wine and beer, and also an occasional cigarette which he loved to smoke and eat.
When the 22nd Company moved out from Iraq, Wojtek went with them.
Wojtek, the beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking soldier
Wojtek was a Syrian brown bear, one of the smaller species of brown bears, but he was still well over 6 feet when fully grown.
Wojtek became very popular among soldiers and civilians, and was deemed an unofficial mascot of the 22 second company as his friendly and curious demeanor was a welcome site to all the people and he would attract the attention with his antics wherever he went.
He learned to salute and would often wrestle with the soldiers that were brave enough, but most of the men preferred to watch, as wrestling Wojtek meant that the challengers would often end up with bruises and torn clothes.
His caretakers and closest friends were two young soldiers Henryk Zacharewicz and Dymitr Szawlugo, who can both be seen on many of the photos of Wojtek that were taken at the time.
One night, while the Company was stationed in Palestine, an Arabian thief tried to break into the compound where the ammunition was stored. The only problem that he encountered was the bear that was peacefully sleeping inside.
Wojtek didn’t take kindly to this trespassing, and the fleeing Arab caused so much commotion, that he was easily caught and arrested by the soldiers. The bear was more than happy with the bottle of beer that he got as a reward.
While Wojtek was a cub, it was easy for him to ride in the cabin of a transport vehicle, but as he grew to his full size he had to drive at the back of a truck with the supplies. During longer journeys, he would usually travel in one of the recovery trucks, where he had more room and he could entertain himself by climbing the crane.
Once, a scorpion stung Wojtek on the nose and most of the men thought, with heavy hearts, that he was not going to make it. However, Henryk didn’t leave his side for several days and managed to nurse him to full health, to a relief of the whole company.
Private Woytek, the official mascot
When the 22nd company got instructions to move out from Egypt to the front in Italy in 1943, there was no way they were going to leave behind their furry brother in arms.
The only problem was, they were to board a British transport, and the British army rules clearly stated that no animals were allowed aboard the military ships. To resolve this, Wojtek was given his own paybook, serial number and a rank of corporal.
As a newly drafted private, Wojtek lived with other soldiers in tents, or in a special wooden crate that was used to transport him in a truck.
One of the biggest battles that the 22nd company faced was the siege of Monte Cassino, where the allied forces managed to break through the German defenses after a prolonged and bitter fight. During this battle, Wojtek was near the artillery firing line, where he was helping to move the crates of ammunition off the truck, under the supervision by Henryk.
When Henryk was ordered to move forward as an artillery spotter, Wojtek was left alone and unsupervised.
Always curious and eager to help, Wojtek started copying the soldiers around him, and started moving the crates of ammunition, that would usually take two grown men to carry, from the truck to the artillery cannons.
He wasn’t afraid of the sounds of gunfire, displayed a lot of courage during the battle and didn’t drop a single crate.
To honor his valiant efforts, the HQ approved a change to an official emblem of the 22nd company which from that moment on depicted a bear carrying an artillery shell.
The retirement, the zoo and the memorials
When the war ended in May 1945, Polish soldiers were stationed temporarily at Winfield Camp in England, until the process of demobilization was finished.
As they were sent home, many of the polish men would say goodbye to Wojtek, knowing that they will probably never going to see him again.
Wojtek, on the other hand, found his retirement comfortable at the Edinburgh Zoo, where he spent the remaining days in peace and quiet. He became quite the attraction with the visitors, because of his friendly and jovial nature.
He would always perk up when he would hear someone speak polish, and some of the ex-servicemen would enter the cage to wrestle with him, to the horror of the zoo employees.
He died in 1963, at the age of 21.
His death was met with much sadness from his army friends, and it was reported by numerous newspapers and the radio stations.
There are numerous statues and plaques that commemorate this unusual and brave bear’s life, of which the most well known are the statue in Park Jordana, Krakov and a bronze statue in the Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh.
This second statue was unveiled on 7 November 2015, after a fundraising campaign made in 2013 by The Wojtek Memorial Trust.
During a period that was very hard for polish people, as they lost their country to the Nazis and later to the Communists, Wojtek became one of the symbols of polish pride and perseverance during those dark times.
His legacy and the legacy of the brave men and women that risked their lives and fought to liberate their country will live on through these memorials.