In September 1939 Germany and the Soviet Union invaded and divided Poland. Approximately two million Polish citizens were deported by the Soviets to labor camps or imprisoned. After Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, with the subsequent Sikorski-Mayski Agreement of July 30, 1941, and the Polish-Soviet Military Agreement of August 14, 1941, the Soviets released thousands of Poles to fight with the Allies. Under the command of General Wladyslaw Anders, the Poles left the Soviet Union and made their way to the Middle East. Once there, the Poles formed the Polish II Corps and fought under British command.
A brown bear first became part of Polish WWII history in 1942. When the Poles reached Persia (Iran), they met a young boy who sold them a orphaned bear cub. The bear became a mascot for the Polish II Corps. The Polish soldiers named him Wojtek (Voytek in English). As the bear grew he became more than a mascot and fit very well into army life. He learned how to smoke, enjoy a beer, wrestle and relax with his fellow soldiers, eat army food, go on guard duty, salute, nod his head when addressed, and liked riding in trucks. Wojtek and his fellow soldiers developed a camaraderie that would last a lifetime.
Wojtek moved with the soldiers from Persia, to Palestine, to Iraq, and then to Egypt. When the Poles were preparing to sail from Egypt to Italy, a problem arose. The ship would only transport soldiers and supplies. It is said by some that General Anders officially “enlisted” Wojtek into the Polish Army at that time. Corporal Wojtek was listed as a soldier and left for Italy.
In Italy the Poles fought with other Allied countries in the famous Battle of Monte Cassino. In the fourth battle to capture the Benedictine monastery, the Poles reached the top of the mountain and raised the Polish flag on May 18, 1944.
Among the Polish units at Monte Cassino was the 22nd Transport Company. It was their responsibility to transport and distribute munitions, food, and fuel to the heavy artillery regiments. During the battle, one of the soldiers carrying munition boxes was Corporal Wojtek. Wojtek carrying a shell became the emblem of the company.
After WWII ended, the Polish II Corps sailed from Italy to Scotland and was demobilized. WWII had ended, but Poland was not an independent, free country again. Many Poles felt they were left homeless and chose not to return to Poland after the war.
But what would become of Corporal Wojtek?
It was decided to send Wojtek to the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. He had a new home, but like the Poles he was not free. There are stories of Poles who visited Wojtek at the zoo, threw him cigarettes which he ate, and proclaimed he still understood Polish. A touching story is told of a man who brought a violin to the zoo and played a Polish mazurka for Wojtek. It is said Wojtek “danced” with the music. Wojtek had the look of a bear but, indeed, had the heart of a Pole.
Wojtek was a popular resident at the Edinburgh Zoo but never again had his freedom or the camaraderie of his Polish friends. Wojtek died at the zoo on December 2, 1963. He was about 21 years old.
In a newspaper Letters to the Editor section after Wojtek died, a Londoner, Michael George Olizar wrote, “He left his bones, like many other Polish veterans, on British soil.”
Wojtek, the soldier bear, is still remembered and celebrated today. His story has been told in books, a BBC documentary, and there are statues and plaques dedicated in his memory around the world.