One Photo One Story: Wojtek the Soldier Bear
Fear not, history lover! Thou shalt no more be confused/bored by Poland and its incredibly complex past. Culture.pl's brand new series 'One Photo One Story' sheds light on fascinating snapshots of Polish history by telling their tale in a clear and entertaining fashion. To start us off, we present you with the irresistible anecdote of Wojtek the soldier bear, which mirrors that WWII realities could be heart-warming at times.
The story of a bear soldier in the Polish army cannot be told without a brief contextual introduction. When Poland was simultaneously invaded from both sides by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia in the first weeks of World War II, both occupiers started the mass exile of Polish citizens, with soldiers being sent away first. Approximately 200,000 of them were sent to the most distant places in the Soviet Union and imprisoned in the Gulags, and they were soon followed by over 1,500,000 Polish civilians.
Click the image below to check out our podcast about Wojtek's long journey from the deserts of Iran to the Scottish highlands.
After Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin was forced to look for allies and after accepting the Allied forces' offer, he re-established diplomatic relations with Poland. According to the subsequent Sikorski-Mayski agreement, exiled Polish soldiers were released from their Soviet prison camps and allowed to reunite under General Władysław Anders. Despite mysterious obstacles and sabotage from the Soviets, the army was formed and informally named Anders’ Army. Unsurprisingly, one of its first decisions was to evacuate the Soviet Union and join the Allied forces.
Actually, it was a miracle. Neither my mother or I thought that we would ever leave Russia. They [the Russians] told us that just as we ‘can’t see our ears with our own eyes, we would never see Poland again’ - says one of the civilians evacuated together with Anders' Army.
On their way from Iran via Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Egypt, they picked up one more recruit. In 1942, Polish citizens accompanying Anders’ Army met a boy carrying a barely alive little orphaned brown bear. The Poles decided to buy him for a handful of Persian coins, some chocolate, a Swiss knife and a tin of beef. Right away, they gave him a common Polish name – Wojtek. Given his future military career, this choice turned out to be somewhat prescient – it translates as 'Smiling Warrior'.
After recovering just slightly, the bear started messing around to such an extent that his first caretaker – Irena Borkiewicz – was forced to move him out of the camp. She decided to give him as a present to one of the army’s leaders. Soldiers’ mascots were massively popular at that time, and Wojtek was quickly accepted as a new comrade of the 22nd Artillery Transport Company. Unlike other, smaller mascots, for the purpose of his nourishment, he received a military service book, a number and a weekly soldier’s wage, officially becoming Corporal Wojtek.
Because he was raised from a cub among people, he had no difficulty fitting in with his brothers-in-arms. He would go on guard duty, and wrestle and box with his fellow soldiers during his free time (winning all of his fights but never harming anybody). He even picked up some of their less salubrious habits – he was known to love a beer or two, and even smoked (and ate) cigarettes.
He adored challenging other soldiers to wrestling matches, even fighting four opponents at a time. He would hide his claws and enjoy rolling with them on the floor, slamming them and pretending to bite them. However, he would never, ever do harm to anybody – said Archibald Brown, courier for General Montgomery.
He was taught how to salute, and how to watch over trucks by sitting in the drivers’ cabin. At almost 7 feet tall, this huge and fearsome creature with the soul of a friendly orphan instantly became the favourite of all the units stationed near his regiment. His best, though, was yet to come.
Italy and the Battle of Monte Cassino
Anders’ Army, after being placed under British command, was ordered to embark by ship to Italy to join the Allied forces in the Italian Campaign.
Transport of animals was strictly forbidden, but he was already so well-known, so popular, that we had little problem embarking with him on the ship – says Wojciech Narębski, who served with Wojtek in the 22nd Artillery Transport Company.
Soon after arriving in Italy, Anders’ Army was ordered to assault the German stronghold of Monte Cassino. It was one of the most fortified points in Europe – a monastery-cum-fortress on top of a mountain, with skilled snipers dealing death from all four of its sides. The attack would be impossible without preparatory artillery bombardment, thus Polish artillery units had their hands full and needed swift and constant resupply.
The 22nd Artillery Transport Company worked day and night. One day, an exhausted soldier nodded to Wojtek, who was watching the trucks, jokingly asking him to carry a metal crate full of shells. Wojtek stood on his rear legs, took the crate and swiftly went in the direction of a nearby artillery piece. From that day on, he became the most efficient porter of the company, and an emblem of him carrying a shell became the unit’s symbol. His legend spread to all the armies fighting in the Italian Campaign.
Final Leg: Scotland instead of Poland
Even though the Battle of Monte Cassino was won, Rome was taken and the Axis powers were finally defeated, the history of Anders’ Army and Wojtek himself has no happy ending. The 200,000 Poles who fought alongside the Allied armies in the hope of returning to the Poland they were exiled from were brutally let down by the Yalta Conference. Poland fell on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain.
We knew that the government in Warsaw had been deemed legitimate, the satellite, pro-Communist government in fact, established in Moscow. Meanwhile, recognition of the government-in-exile had been withdrawn, and all of the five years of grinding life in constant fear of being killed at any time, risking our lives for a free Poland, became strictly for the birds. Eventually it turned out that Poland was not free and our fight was for nothing – said Józef Możdżeń, a former soldier of Anders’ Army.
For the soldiers of Anders’ Army, the memories of Gulags and Soviet Russia were too strong to return to a Soviet-ruled Poland. Moreover, their status in the new Poland would be very uncertain, as they were officially former Soviet prisoners, released only thanks to Stalin’s ‘amnesty’. Even General Anders was advised not to return, and he eventually spent the rest of his life in exile. In 1946, the communist government deprived him of his Polish citizenship and military rank.
His army’s war ended in Camp Winfield, Scotland, and so it was for Wojtek. After a period when the soldiers stayed at the refugee camp with nothing to do and nowhere to go, they decided to disband and look for some sort of reasonable continuation of their civilian lives. The Allied forces had stopped their wages. They were only reluctantly welcomed in the United Kingdom and afraid to return to Poland.
For Wojtek, things were even more complicated. From his first days in the Polish army, soldiers had dreamt of taking him back to Poland and walking with him in a victory parade through the streets of Warsaw. Meanwhile, in 1946 in Scotland, there was nobody who could take care of Wojtek, and his wartime comrades had a hard time deciding what to do with him. Eventually, thanks to the support of one of the British commanders (who had met Wojtek in Palestine), they managed to find a place for him in Edinburgh Zoo.
He instantly became the zoo's most visited animal and earned much more money than needed for his upkeep. However, the most important part of the agreement between the zoo and Wojtek’s caretakers was that if Poland ever regained its freedom he would immediately be given back and sent to Poland.
Wojtek died long before Poland became a fully independent state – on December 2nd, 1962. His isolated life in captivity had made him much less friendly than before, even though his comrades continued to visit him long after the war had ended.
The only bear soldier known to history meant the world to the soldiers who took care of him. In their memoirs, they emphasize that him being an orphan with no home immediately made him one of them, and that his human-like behaviour was a source of both pride and delight for everybody. He was definitely one of the brightest rays of sunshine in the tragic history of Anders’ Army and its soldiers, many of whom never saw their homeland again.
The fate of Wojtek was very similar to that of many Polish soldiers. Many of our soldiers had also lost everyone; they were orphans, so our bear was an orphan among orphans. Maybe that’s why we got on with him so well? – pondered Wojciech Narębski.
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, January 21st 2015.
Sources: The Bear That Went To War, dir. by Will Hood and Adam Lavis, A Beer For A Bear dir. by Maria Dłużewska, Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero by Aileen Orr.Interested in more Polish World War II stories?