kenny hodgart

Wojtek the soldier bear

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This article appeared in The Times

THE common wisdom about bears is that they are best left alone, unless they are Gentle Ben or of the stuffed variety. That policy was disregarded, to propitious effect, however, in the case of a Syrian brown bear befriended by Polish soldiers in 1942, and about whose remarkable life there is currently an exhibition running at London’s Sikorski Polish Institute.

Wojtek – the handle he was given by the Polish Second Corps, an army formed by Poles newly released from Soviet internment camps in Siberia and Kazakhstan after Hitler declared war on Stalin – was an orphaned cub when he was acquired from a boy in Hamadan, Iran, in exchange for a few tins of meat.

His only comrades being human, he grew to be the most human of bears: he was adopted by Artillery Supply Command as the Poles joined British forces fighting Rommel in the desert, lived with the other men in their tents and was taught to salute when greeted. By 1944 he had an official rank and number, and in Italy, at Monte Cassino, he carried live shells and artillery from truck to gun emplacement unfazed by the explosions going on around his fuzzy ears. He was even given rations – honey, cigarettes and beer. Of the latter, he drank two bottles daily, while his party trick involved swallowing lit cigarettes and exhaling the smoke.

The Sikorski exhibition has been curated by Krystyna Ivell. Her father, an officer, was shot by the Soviets at Katyn in 1939. Her mother would spend the latter part of the war working for the Polish government-in-exile’s Secret Bureau, alongside Menachem Begin, but when she and her daughter were released from a Siberian camp in 1941, they crossed the Caspian Sea and found themselves well within the compass of the Wojtek legend.

“I never met him but I followed him as a child,” says Ivell, who has told Wojtek’s story with archive film footage, stills and cuttings. “The exhibition is for my own satisfaction. For Poles under Communism, they weren’t allowed to know this history, so it’s an accessible route through Wojtek to a bit of history – the film we have made has children glued to it.”

She adds: “Wojtek is not a cuddly toy or a cartoon character. He was essential to the soldiers; he kept their sanity in a way. They gave him their love and attention and he returned it in spades.”

By the end of the war, Wojtek and his company were living on a farm in Berwickshire. When the soldiers were demobbed in 1947, he was taken in by Edinburgh Zoo, where he died in 1963. When his old mates visited they would frequently climb over the fence and hug him, much to the consternation of the zookeepers. Now, Edinburgh City Council plans to erect a statue of him. Whether he’ll be smoking remains to be seen.

This article appeared in The Times

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