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The Warsaw Voice » Society » November 28, 2013
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Tribute to Wojtek, the Soldier Bear
November 28, 2013   
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When a bear with the Polish name of Wojtek died at Edinburgh Zoo in December 1963, the zoo lost its arguably most remarkable resident ever. Wojtek’s story is a colorful one that has inspired several books and documentaries, in addition to many press articles.

How did a bear with a Polish name end up in a zoo in Scotland? The story began in 1942 when a boy sold a little cub to a soldier of the Polish Armed Forces in the West, which at the time were stationed in Iran. The cub grew up to become a sturdy bear with some remarkably human characteristics. Wojtek responded to commands and requests in Polish, drank beer and smoked cigarettes with Polish soldiers. Strange as it may sound, he was officially registered as a private in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company and together with the Polish Second Corps, he traveled across Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Italy. He helped Polish troops transport ammunition and deliver it to the front during the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy.

After the war, Polish troops along with private Wojtek arrived in 1946 in the Scottish city of Glasgow, from where they were sent to the Polish Resettlement Camp at Winfield in Berwickshire, southeast Scotland.

When the camp was disbanded in 1947, Wojtek was handed over to Edinburgh Zoo and lived there for another 16 years, pining for his Polish friends and for his freedom.

This year marks 50 years since Wojtek died and a number of projects and initiatives have been undertaken to commemorate him, including statues unveiled in the Polish towns of Żagań and Szymbark, and with two more under way in Cracow and Sopot. Probably the most important of these projects is under way in Edinburgh, where a memorial to Wojtek and to Polish troops will be built, commemorating their contribution to the Allied victory in World War II. The City of Edinburgh Council approved the project Sept. 16. A bronze statue of Wojtek will stand in the city’s Princess Street Gardens, at the foot of Edinburgh Castle. When a major victory parade was held in London after the end of World War II, Polish soldiers were not invited. But now, they will be honored with a special memorial in the Scottish capital.

The project was initiated by the Wojtek Memorial Trust, primarily thanks to the efforts of two energetic women. Both great admirers of Wojtek, they were determined to make sure proper credit is given to all Polish soldiers who came to Britain during World War II. One of the women is Aileen Orr, the head of the Wojtek Memorial Trust. She grew up near a Winfield farm where Wojtek and his soldier friends lived for a time after arriving in Britain. As it happened, after getting married Orr and her husband became the owners of the farm where the Polish Resettlement Camp had been located. Inspired by that coincidence and by the stories she had heard from her grandfather, Orr wrote a book to remind people about the story of Wojtek and the Polish soldiers. Entitled Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero, the book, with an epilogue by Neal Ascherson, was published in 2010 and proved popular around the world. Orr’s story inspired, in turn, British author Raymond Raszkowski-Ross to write a play entitled Wojtek the Bear that premiered in 2012 to a warm reception. In November this year, the play was staged at the Imka Theater in Warsaw.

The other woman determined to see the memorial built is Krystyna Szumelukowa, who for years has worked to foster close relations between Poland and Scotland. Over a decade ago, she was a key figure in bringing to Poland the Fields of Hope fundraising program for hospices for cancer patients.

After the Edinburgh memorial is unveiled, the Wojtek Memorial Trust wants copies of it to be erected in Warsaw and at Monte Cassino.

Supporters of the Edinburgh memorial project have already immortalized Wojtek by designing and registering a distinctive tartan pattern that they have named the Wojtek Memorial Trust Tartan. Their design combines Roxburgh tartan with the red and white colors of the Polish flag to symbolize the special bond that Poland and Scotland have shared over the centuries.

Anyone who wants support the memorial project financially can make a donation to a special bank account; details at www.wojtekthebear.org.uk

Leszek Wieciech
Poland’s Consul General in Scotland 1995-99
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