Our journey starts in Persia, now Iran where Wojtek was taken from his birthplace in the Hamadan mountain region. It is thought the cub's mother was shot by hunters. A local Iranian boy found a bear cub near Hamadan. He sold it to the soldiers of the Polish Army stationed nearby for a couple of canned meat tins. As the bear was less than a year old, he initially had problems swallowing and was fed with condensed milk from an emptied vodka bottle.
The bear was fed with fruits, marmalade, honey and syrup, and was often rewarded with beer, which became his favorite drink. He also enjoyed smoking and eating cigarettes. He enjoyed wrestling and was taught to salute when greeted.
He gave the Polish army something to live for when their world was falling apart in WWII. He became their surrogate child, when they have no idea what had actually happened to their own children and families back home in Poland, and basically became a much loved and very spoiled brown bear.
Wojtek was brought up not to be a danger to humans. "He was very quiet, very peaceful." However, he did take a dislike to a monkey and another bear, who had also been adopted by troops.
Alexandria, Egypt 1944
Over the long journey from Iran to Palestine, the bear, now named Wojtek (it's spelled Wojtek in Polish but pronounced "Voytek") quickly became the unofficial mascot of the 22nd Company.
He grew to be a part of the unit, improving the morale of men. He also became fond of drinking beer and smoking and eating cigarettes, making him a perfect friend for the soldiers. He accompanied the troops in a lengthy journey across Iraq, the Levant and Egypt before travelling by ship to Europe to join the fighting. When the unit marched out on a mission, Wojtek would stand up on his hind legs and march alongside them.
When the motorized convoy was on the move, Wojtek sat in the passenger seat of one of the jeeps, hanging his head out the window and shocking the people walking down the street. Wojtek helped keep up the troops' morale. For people who are far from families, far from their home country, from a psychological viewpoint, it was very important.
On 13th February 1944 Wojtek boarded MS Batory bound for Monte Cassino.
Monte Cassino, Italy 1944
To get him on a British transport ship when the unit sailed from Egypt to fight with the British 8th Army in the Italian campaign, he was officially drafted into the Polish Army as a private and was listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps.
As one of the officially enlisted "soldiers" of the company, he lived with the other men in their tents or in a special wooden crate, which was transported by truck. According to numerous accounts, during the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek helped his friends by transporting ammunition, never dropping a single crate. Thanks in part to the heavy shelling by their artillery, the Polish forces broke through the Nazi defenses and captured Monte Cassino.
Wojtek and his comrades would go one to fight the Germans across the Italian peninsula, breaking through the enemy lines and forcing the German forces out of Italy for good. In recognition of the bear's popularity, the HQ approved an effigy of a bear holding an artillery shell as the official emblem of the 22nd Company (by then renamed to 22nd Transport Company).
Wojtek then set sail from Italy to Glasgow in Scotland on 26th September 1946 following the end of the war.
Berwickshire, Scotland 1946
Following the end of World War II, Wojtek was transported to Berwickshire in Scotland, along with parts of the II Corps. Arriving at Winfield Park in the village of Hutton on 28th October 1946, Wojtek soon became popular among local civilians and the press.
He lived with the 22nd Company for five years, during this time the Polish-Scottish Association made Wojtek one of its honorary members in recognition of his bravery. Many of the Poles feared to return to their country due to Stalin's political domination of the region.
Following demobilization on November 15, 1947 the Polish troops made the reluctant decision to ask Edinburgh Zoo if they could take care of Wojtek.
Edinburgh, Scotland 1963
Wojtek was given to the Edinburgh Zoo. There Wojtek spent the rest of his days (17 years) often visited by journalists and former Polish soldiers, some of whom would toss him cigarettes, which he then proceeded to smoke. It was said that he always perked up when he heard the Polish language spoken by zoo guests, and during his life in there he was always being visited by his old friends from the Polish Army.
The media attention contributed to Wojtek's popularity. He was a frequent guest of BBC's Blue Peter program. Among memorial plaques commemorating the bear-soldier are a stone tablet in the Edinburgh Zoo, and plaques in the Imperial War Museum.
At the age of 22. At the time of his death he weighed nearly 500 pounds (226 kilograms) and had a length of over 6 feet (1.8 meters). Wojtek has become a potent symbol of freedom and solidarity for Poles around the world.
A special thanks to Krystyna Ivell (Mackiewicz), Vic Baczor, Andy Traverse (Szawlugo)
For further reading, we recommend the following websites:
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