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Wojtek the Bear – Polish War Hero by Aileen Orr is an endearing true story of a Syrian bear in the Persian mountains that in April 1942 joined a Polish contingent of soldiers on their way to Palestine. The soldiers had stopped in the Zagros Mountains for a meal break and were joined by a hungry local boy with a sack around his neck. The soldiers shared their food with the boy and took a peak in the sack.
To the men’s immense surprise, when they cautiously loosened the bag’s ties, the small black snout of a bear cub pushed out. The men gently lifted him out to get a better look. He was a scrawny, unkept little thing, obviously not properly fed, but there was something about this defenseless, woebegone creature, no more than a few months old, that was immensely appealing
The soldiers were from the East of Poland (now Ukraine) and were making the long journey from Siberian labour camps to a meeting place in Palestine after being freed from Soviet imprisonment. They were half starved, traumatized and desperately missing their families and homes. The bear gave them something to love and take care of so they bought him from the boy.
My brother-in-law gave me this book some years ago and it’s taken the Norwegian winter for me to make time to read it, that and a trip to visit family in Poland at Christmas. My great grandfather disappeared from his village near Kraków in early 1940 and my family learnt years later that he had been executed in Ostaszkow, as part of the Katyn massacre of Polish officers, doctors, police, intelligentsia and other important people, about 22000 in total, that was ordered by Stalin.
My grandfather was forced to leave his home and join a labour team working on a railway track near France that the French resistance would regularly sabotage. He was eventually liberated by the American army, but when forced to work for them instead he ‘escaped’ to Aberdeen and joined the air force repairing planes.
Wojtek quickly grew to 1.8m tall and 220kg in size and when the Polish Artillery team were shipped from Egypt to Italy, they listed Wojtek as a private in the Army. He became a legend, as this journalist put it:
a British veteran recounted how he was taken aback when he suddenly saw a full-grown bear calmly schlepping mortar shells past him during the bloody Battle of Monte Cassino, in the spring of 1944… With the approval of the Polish high command, the company’s emblem was changed to one showing a bear carrying a massive artillery shell.
When I read the story of the soldiers and Wojtek the Bear fighting in Italy and then being sent to live in a camp in Scotland, I was very interested and I learnt a lot of the social and political background to the life that my grandfather must have led.
Aileen writes with emotional sensitivity and I found the story engaging. She shared many anecdotes about the antics of Wojtek the Bear and the great love between him and the soldiers, especially his adopted father Lance – Corporal Peter Prendys who was devoted and tender towards Wojtek. She also provided the perspective of the locals in Scotland and what it was like having tens of thousands of Polish military men in their country at a time of severe austerity and shortages as well as xenophobia.
Ultimately however I found Aileen’s style overly repetitive and lacking in something. This was overcome by the engaging subject matter and also by the well-written and informative epilogue by Neal Ascherson that masterfully provided a sketch of the political setting and history.
For the anecdotes about Wojtek alone this is worth reading! I laughed and cried and fell in love with Wojtek and Peter! You can see footage and photos of Wojtek here.
The end of the war was to herald in an idyllic summer for Wojtek and his companions (on the Adriatic coast of Italy). There were plenty of furloughs and he had many opportunities to indulge in his passion for water sports: he enjoyed many happy days swimming in the temperate waters of the Adriatic. As ever, his mischievous nature was given full rein. The beaches where he and the men bathed were shared with civilians. Wojtek’s favourite trick was to swim underwater towards a group of unsuspecting women bathers, then suddenly surface in their midst. Their squeals of alarm as they found themselves in close proximity to a huge bear were music to his ears.
Have you read this book? What did you think? Do you have a story to share from that era?