Poland is my passion – an interview with Aileen Orr

The statue of Wojtek in Edinburgh could never have been erected if it were not for tremendous efforts of dedicated enthusiasts. Here we present an interview with one of them – Aileen Orr, a founder of the Wojtek Memorial Trust, and author of the book “Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero”.

How did you get the idea to build the memorial for Wojtek and Polish soldiers?

I knew Wojtek’s story from my Grandfather, who had met him and his fellow soldiers in the Middle East. Then, I accidentally happened to marry the man who owned the land where Polish troops had their camp after arriving in Scotland. When I realised this, I immediately thought we should put some recognition to this place, but at first I only thought about putting a carved stone on our farm. Withtime, I realised Wojtek and his fellow soldiers deserved more recognition.

Five years ago you wrote a widely popular book about Wojtek. Did you expect it to hit the best-seller lists in Poland and Scotland or maybe in the world?

After the book was published, I received thousands of emails, letters and telephone calls from its readers, who felt Wojtek’s story touched a very raw nerve with them. I was surprised to discover so many people in Poland had not heard about the bear before. It was a complete revelation, and I knew then I had touched on something very important. But when I first started writing the book, it was just to raise funds to build Wojtek’s statue. Wojtek’s story was personally important for me, but I could only hope it would speak to other people. 

You wrote your book when you worked as an advisor in the Scottish Parliament. Currently you are running for the Parliament from the SNP’s list. Is it not difficult to share your time between so many diverse duties?

I enjoy being busy, and I would be very unhappy if I were unemployed. It is true that writing the book, I was working as advisor to Michael Russell, MSP and Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning. I continue to be politically active, and my main focus is on education and rising recognition for dyslexia, as I come from a dyslexic family. Meanwhile, I am also a farmer’s wife, which requires a great amount of diverse skills. Nothing of this prevents me from writing. I have recently written my first novel, about a woman trying to become a politician in the Scottish Parliament. It is not biographical, but it does allow me to have some fun with my own experiences in politics.

What do you think about Maciej Wilczyński, the first Polish candidate for the Scottish Parliament?

I think Maciej’s candidacy is a really positive step, as we have in Scotland an active Polish community who have the right to vote. I have quite a lot of Polish friends, as Poland is my passion, and I think Maciej’s campaign will be an excellent opportunity to highlight the views and needs of the Polish people in Scotland. I hope the popularity of Wojtek’s statute and the way it highlights historical Polish-Scottish links will also contribute to the recognition of the Polish community in Scotland.

By Dorota Peszkowska
Photos: Barbara Ostrowska