The bear who brought hope in midst of war

Aileen Orr, author of "Wojtek the bear" at home.
Aileen Orr, author of "Wojtek the bear" at home.

TWO figures wander down a country lane, totally at ease in each other’s company. One, a soldier, gently rests his hand on the shoulder of his large comrade, a Syrian brown bear.

It is an incredibly powerful image created by sculptor Alan Herriot, and one which perfectly captures the essence of a remarkable story now committed to print in a book by Borders author Aileen Orr.

Herriot’s sculpture is still only a model, but the hope is that the sales of Aileen’s just-published book together with donations will fund the creation of a full-scale statue to commemorate the extraordinary life of Private Wojtek – the bear who became a Polish war hero.

The book – Wojtek The Bear: Polish War Hero – tells the story of how the 500lb brown bear was found as an orphaned cub by Polish troops while stationed in what was then Persia.

The soldiers adopted the bear and he went on to accompany them through their Second World War campaigns in the Middle East and became a legend in the hell that was the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy, where he voluntarily carried heavy boxes of mortar shells in his giant paws during the fighting, never dropping a single one.

At the end of the war, Wojtek and his fellow soldiers – for that was genuinely how he seemed to see himself and how his beloved comrades in the 22nd Transport Company of the Polish Second Army Corps regarded him – arrived in Berwickshire to await their fate as the victorious allied powers carved up Europe.

Like his comrades, Wojtek – the name means “Happy Warrior” – liked a beer and a cigarette and showed tremendous courage under fire.

His presence was also a welcome distraction for the men, wrestling with them and keeping them entertained by getting into numerous scrapes, including getting stuck up a palm tree and cornering an Arab spy.

Wojtek’s story is well known in Poland, but in Scotland it had almost been forgotten, except among a handful of surviving Polish war veterans now in their eighties and nineties, and those who remember the bear from either his time in the Borders or his final years in Edinburgh Zoo.

That included Aileen Orr who lives at Sunwick Farm, near Hutton, and now works as an advisor to Mike Russell MSP.

It was at Sunwick Farm in the autumn of 1946, when the farm was the location of the Winfield Camp for Displaced Persons, that Wojtek and the Polish troops arrived to make it their temporary home.

Aileen has loved Wotjek’s story ever since childhood – she visited him in Edinburgh Zoo with a Polish friend. When the bear heard Aileen’s friend speaking Polish, he waved to the two little girls.

Aileen’s grandfather had met Wojtek on a number of occasions during and after the war, and he was a font of stories and anecdotes with which he regaled Aileen while she was growing up.

She hopes the book and the £200,000 statue will help recognise Wojtek and the great debt Scotland and the rest of Europe owe to the courage of the Poles, many of whom had been deported by Stalin to Siberia and then freed to make their way via the Middle East to Britain to join the fight against the Nazis.

“These men were far from home, had nothing, and often no-one, so Wojtek stood in for the wives, children, pets, and family they’d left behind. He was someone to love and someone who loved them back,” she told TheSouthern this week.

“I just wrote down all the stories and information I had gathered, just as if I had been telling the story to someone. There was so much information, but Wojtek was the thread that pulled it all together.

“For the Polish soldiers, Wojtek was their symbol of freedom. They cried like babies when he had to go into the zoo. They felt they had let Wojtek and themselves down, but they had no choice. They couldn’t keep him as a pet in Scotland and if he had gone back to Poland, he would almost certainly have been met with a bullet.

“The real crux of this story is how man can survive against all the odds; can find the courage to keep going. The men needed something to focus on to keep things normal. Wojtek gave them something to look after and care about and that kept them going.”

After the war, many of those who had served in the Free Polish Forces remained in Scotland, unable to return to their homeland which was now under Soviet control.

They had no choice but to make a new life for themselves in this country and now consider themselves Scots.

Aileen believes it is time their contribution to, not just the war effort, but also to the cultural life of Scotland since 1945, much more recognition.

“The book is certainly causing a bit of a stir. I have been getting a lot of calls and emails from all around the world. It is an amazing story,” she said.

“The book was written to raise money for the Wojtek Memorial Trust which was set up to collect enough money to raise a statute to the memory of the bear and the thousands of Polish soldiers that fought for freedom.

“But we will not take any actual money until we have located a site and it looks as if that will now be on Calton Hill in Edinburgh.”

Aileen added: “Two people have already offered to pay for the whole thing but we are very keen to have lots of people donate small amounts of money so that a great many people can feel they have contributed. And there will also be duplicate statues made for Warsaw and Italy.”

Channel 4 has carried out some filming for a programme about Wojtek, as has a 
 Polish film crew, while a Polish-born Hollywood film director is keen to do something with the story and a play is being written.

Asked to sum up what she feels is the message of the Wojtek story, Aileen says it is a celebration of the relationship between man and beast.

“The soldiers were trained killers, while the bear was a natural killer. But when in Scotland, neither had to kill to survive any longer

“Many of these men had never had the chance to enjoy a childhood, but Wojtek taught them how to be children again in the midst of a world war.”