Saturday, October 30, 2010


Iran, 1943. A group of Polish soldiers, freshly released from Soviet camps in Siberia, were on a trek back east to join up with their fellow countrymen fighting in Egypt and Italy. The Polish Second Army Corps, as they were called, came accross a wandering young boy. They in return for some food, the boy gave them a brown sack... which contained a young, orphaned Brown Bear Cub.
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The Cub was less than a year old and badly undernourished. The soldiers nursed him on condensed milk from an old vodka bottle. They named him Wojtek (pronounced Voy-tek) and he became the unofficial mascot of the 22nd Transport Artillery Supply Company.

Wojtek became one of the guys. He enjoyed cigarettes, (eating them, not smoking) would drink bottles of beer, and knew how to march and salute. He figured out how to work the showers, and one one occasion, actually discovered an enemy spy in the unit's bath house.  His reward for such heroism? Two beers and an entire morning in the bath hut!

In 1944, his unit was shipping out to Italy. The British soldiers that  they were traveling with would only allow enlisted men aboard the ship, so Woktek became an official member of the Polish Army. He received the rank of private, was given a serial number, and was listed on all of their official documentation.

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Wojtek was there for the Battle of Monte Cassino, traveling in the passenger seat of supply trucks and carrying heavy shells and boxes of ammunition. He was an excellent soldier, unfazed by everything that was going on around him. After the war, the men of his company were stationed at a camp near Hutton, Scotland, as their home country was under Soviet control. Woytek found a new home at the Edinburgh Zoo, were he responded favorably to visits from Polish soldiers who would try and sneak him cigarettes.

Wojtek became the star of the zoo, and passed away in 1963. Numerous commemorative plaques have been erected for him and there are currently plans in Edinburgh to erect a permanent memorial. In addition, the Sikorski Museum in London is holding an exhibit about this remarkable bear, which runs through November.

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