What nerve do the Commanders of the Polish Army have to subject a distinguished soldier over the way he looks? Where was the outrage? Why weren’t talking heads on the news losing their minds? Where were the endless tweets and hashtags? #Sad!
Wojtek (pronounced Voytek) was an Iranian-born Syrian Brown Bear who was purchased by fleeing Polish Army prisoners after their release from labor camps and gulags in Siberia in the harsh winters of 1942. Their route brought them across the Caspian Sea to Persia, commonly referred to as Iran today. Hunters killed Wojtek’s mother and a small boy found him and provided him with the little food he had.
Out of chance alone, the soldiers and the boy ran into each other and the men were quite intrigued to find a little boy carrying a brown bear cub in his knapsack on his back. The soldiers offered the boy supplies with food in exchange for the struggling and weak brown bear in which he took because the both of them were in pretty rough shape.
Lacking supplies themselves, they put condensed milk into empty vodka bottles to give the bear cub much needed nutrients to nurse him back to life.
Wojtek was given his name by the men of 22nd Transport Company, Artillery Division, Polish 2nd Corp, where his new family grew to love him as a mascot and later as a member of the team to help boost morale. He continued to grow making it harder for his friends to feed them, so they improvised.
Wojtek was so awesome after devouring everything but the kitchen sink – he developed the taste for a combination of wine and beer coupled with cigarettes, only which he’d accept if they were lit. He would stick his nose into empty wine bottles and was often seen taking a puff from a cigarette because that’s not coolest thing I’ve ever heard – before inhaling the cigarette entirely.
Other than living like a renegade, Wojtek enjoyed wrestling with his mates. Even so, some of the soldiers vowed to watch from a distance rather than partake because many of them would walk away with some light battle scars, scratches and torn uniforms.
Wojtek later become a hero in Palestine when a scallywag Arab man tried to steal some weapons in the Armory where Wojtek was sleeping. He was shocked to see a full-grown brown bear staring back at him. Despite the commotion that ensued – and for hypothetical madness of what followed – it’s safe to assume that Wojtek put him in a headlock until his comrades arrived. The man was arrested and charged as a thief.
For his efforts Wojtek was awarded a bottle of beer.
While Wojtek was transported to the Middle East and particularly Egypt, he needed a way to entertain himself despite the blistering conditions in the deserts where shade was often a mirage.
He was often found in the shower huts in which he managed to figure out a way to turn the water on himself. Though his nosy intuition often led to water shortages. He would chase oranges that were thrown by his mates as they simulated grenade practice. And to appalling effect, the men miraculously taught Wojtek how to pickup and flip around rookies without hurting them all by their feet to make them think that they were going to be his next meal.
*Nervous laugh*, “Nice one, you got me. My pal, Wojtek.”
When he was young he could sit comfortably in the front seat. But as he grew he would often sit in the back with the rest of his soldiers and would accompany them throughout their long journeys. Wherever he went, he was the center of attention. In his spare time he would climb trees and cranes. He loved to entertain people. Along the way he met other mascots; Kasha the monkey and Kirkuk the dog. Unfortunately they didn’t last very long because of the harsh conditions and surrounding wildlife.
Before joining the fight in Italy of 1943, the Polish soldiers feared their new companion wouldn’t be able to join them because animals were not permitted to accompany the army during war. Therefore, they gave Wojtek his very own personal paybook, rank and serial number so on paper he appeared to be just one of the guys.
Wojtek earned iconic status when he was seen transporting ammo cans out on the front lines during the Battle of Monte Cassino to help load the artillery guns his comrades desperately needed to stay in the fight. Later reports dispel the deed citing that the ammo cans were empty and shells were spent. But others said that these antics were natural for Wojtek because he often mimicked what the other soldiers were doing at the time. Despite the heresay, Wojtek became a cult hero and the media jumped all over his new found fame.
In May of 1945 the Polish unit disbanded and the soldiers were sent all over Europe. Wojtek was sent to live on a farm in Scotland that later formed into the Edinburgh Zoo. He lived with former Polish fighters and carried on with his usual self entertaining the local populace.
Villagers would often feed him honey and jam to snack on, invite him to concerts, family parties, and get-togethers, kick around the soccer ball, and would occasionally wrestle him if they were up for the challenge.
Wojtek passed away in 1963 due to esophagus failure. A bronze statue arose in November of 2015 in Edinburg in his honor.
Wojtek became a symbol the people of Poland were proud of all throughout the war. They battled the Nazis and survived communism. “He became part of history of the Polish Armed Forces in the Second World War and his legacy will endure”, – Andres Szawlugo.