Hundreds of people braved heavy rain for Saturday’s unveiling of a memorial featuring one of the Second World War’s unlikeliest heroes.
The story of how a brown bear cub, rescued by Polish troops in the Middle East during the war, grew up to face the hardships of battle alongside his comrades, has been made famous around the world by Berwickshire author Aileen Orr.
It was Aileen who helped found the trust which raised almost £300,000 for the memorial statue featuring Wojtek and which also pays tribute to the Polish soldiers who fought for freedom against the Nazis.
The statue, unveiled by Polish war veterans in a prime location in Edinburgh’s West Prince’s Street Gardens, was created by sculptor Alan Herriot and depicts Wojtek and a Polish soldier ‘walking in peace and unity’ to represent the bear’s journey from his Middle East home to Scotland.
The design is based on memories of those who lived around Sunwick camp in Berwickshire where Wojtek lived with his Polish comrades after the war, especially Augustyn Karolewski, who died in 2012.
The huge bear is said to have drank beer with the soldiers and helped carry ammunition during the fighting.
The bronze sculpture stands on a platform of granite from Poland and Polish Second Corps veteran, Wojtek Narebski, who unveiled the statue with Edmund Szymczak, observed: “Wojtek could not return to Poland, but he is staying on Polish soil.”
Polish ambassador Witold Sobkow read a message from Polish president Andrzej Duda, who described Wojtek as a “most unusual hero”.
He said the statue would “serve as a reminder of Poland and the Polish soldiers who fought in all theatres of the Second World War, and provided living evidence of valour, courage and dedication”.
Among the crowds was Hamish Allan, 66, who recalled seeing the bear on frequent visits to Edinburgh Zoo, where Wojtek spent his final years before dying in 1963.
“I remember being rather saddened by him, being in a cage, but it’s a wonderful story. I’m astounded at the amount of interest by the number of people here,” said Mr Allan.
“Animals gave everything asked of them and many were very badly treated – but Wojtek was the exception
Aileen told us: “After years of hoping this would be a reality, it finally happened with the help of so many people.”