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Wojtek the Bear sets foot on Polish soil in Edinburgh after 70 years

The Ambassador of the Republic of Poland in the UK, Witold Sobków, Lord Provost of Edinburgh Donald Wilson, Polish veterans and nearly two thousand people gathered in the centre of Edinburgh on 7th November to commemorate men, women and the legendary bear Wojtek, who fought for “your freedom and ours.”

In picturesque Edinburgh, at the foot of the medieval castle, in the heart of the prestigious Princes Street Gardens, a statute commemorating the contribution of Polish Soldiers in the Second World War was unveiled. Thanks to that remarkable location, over a million tourists who visit the Scottish capital every year will be able to discover the story of the Polish Army mascot.

The monument presents a soldier of the Polish Army together with a surprising comrade-in-arms – a Syrian brown bear. It reminds passers-by of the tragic history of the Anders Army, a  history which finally, after 70 years, has come to a happy end. 

wojtek unveiling

Photo: Barbara Ostrowska

 

The Anders Army was comprised of Poles imprisoned in Russian Gulags from September 1939 to August 1941. They were reserve soldiers, deported to Siberia after USRR’s assault on Poland. The communist government released them from prison only under British pressure. After their illegal imprisonment in inhumane conditions, the Polish soldiers welcomed the “amnesty” with relief – even though it meant they needed to go back to the front lines to fight with the Allies against Nazi Germany.

In March 1942, the so-called Ander’s Army marched out of Russia towards Palestine, to support the military campaign of the British Army. On their way through a desert they encountered a Polish woman, Irena Bokiewicz, who presented them with an orphaned brown bear cub she had saved from poachers.

Exhausted by their imprisonment and separated from their families, Polish soldiers desperately needed someone to love – and Wojtek turned out to be a gracious object of affection. That is why, against all good reason, the soldiers took the bear with them across the Mediterranean Sea all the way to Italy. There the Polish Army participated in the bloodiest battle of the Second World War, the battle of Monte Cassino. Wojtek played a role in it too – the huge bear carried heavy artillery missiles for the soldiers.

Nonetheless, Wojtek was not only a great soldier, but also a wonderful companion, who became friends with his carers. He loved to wrestle with his comrades, didn’t say no to a glass of vodka, and sometimes he would help his friends to pick up girls – by scaring them to make them run towards the soldiers.

wojtek unveiling

Photo: Barbara Ostrowska

After the war, the soldiers and Wojtek were sent to Scotland. Their division was disbanded, and the soldiers discovered to their despair that Poland was in the hands of the Russian occupier – the very same one who imprisoned them for years. That is why they decided to stay in Scotland. They never received a military pension or other help from the government. They had to take up any work to survive.

Forgotten was not only their sacrifice for the war, but also the symbol of the Polish Artillery Company – Wojtek the Bear. At first popular among locals, the frisky bear started to be a source of fear. That is why the Poles had to make the difficult decision of placing him in Edinburgh Zoo. Used to warm and close contacts with humans, the bear became depressed there. He died in 1963.

"Soldier bear" statue unveiled in Edinburgh's Princes Street Gardens

“Soldier bear” statue unveiled in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens | Photo: Sebastian Kuczynski

Now, after 70 years, the bear and the soldiers finally were given a retribution of sorts. The unveiling of the statute is a shared success of the Polish communities in Scotland, especially of the Wojtek Memorial Trust, who raised almost 300,000 pounds to have it built. Proud and smiling, the Polish soldier and the bear will remind everyone about the difficult, shared Polish-Scottish heritage.

The life-and-a-quarter size bronze statute of the bear and the soldier is accompanied by a plaque with the bear’s story. The sculpture was made by Alan Beattie Herriot, and the casting was by Powderhall Bronze, Edinburgh. The location was selected by Raymond Muszynski from Morris & Steedman Associates. The heroes stand on granite, brought to Edinburgh from Poland. This way the soldier and the bear finally stand on a piece of Polish land they never got to see.

By Dorota Peszkowska
Photo: Sebastian Kuczyński