Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Write for the BIOGRAPHICAL Genre (12/04/14)
TITLE: The Soldier Bear
By Virginia Lee Bliss
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The story began in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland from the west. Germany’s ally, the Soviet Union, invaded from the east, and the two dictatorships carved up Poland. Many Poles in the Soviet sector were deported to the Siberian Gulags.
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Stalin was forced into an alliance with Britain. Since Poland was now Stalin’s ally, the British demanded that he free the Poles.
Led by General Władysław Anders, the Polish military traveled from Siberia to Persia.
How wonderful it was for the Poles, after the harshness and drabness of Siberian winters, to revel in Persian warmth, surrounded by exotic sights, sounds and aromas.
A still more marvelous surprise awaited them.
One day a shepherd boy approached soldiers of the Polish II Corps. In exchange for food, he offered them a sack.
Imagine the soldiers’ surprise when they opened the sack and out popped a baby Syrian brown bear. They named him Wojtek (warrior).
Wojtek was so little that he could eat only condensed milk. Under the soldiers’ love and care, he soon grew large and strong.
They taught him to salute. But everything else he learned simply by watching the soldiers. When he saw them lifting heavy equipment, he joined in the task.
When it came to interactions with female soldiers, Wojtek, like a true Pole, was chivalrous and courtly.
He did not need to be taught bravery. His courage and steadfastness in battle set an example for all.
A favorite pastime of the soldiers was wrestling with him. Man and bear engaged in acrobatics. He showed true sportsmanship, keeping his claws sheathed.
He loved baths and knew how to work the showers. One evening, he was splashing around in the bath hut when he discovered a spy. Wojtek successfully apprehended the agent, thereby preventing military secrets from falling into enemy hands.
It must be confessed that Wojtek adopted some of the soldiers’ less admirable habits. If someone lit it for him, he would smoke a cigarette. He also drank beer. Usually he stuck to two beers a day, but one night he overdid it. His commanding officer cited him for drunken, disorderly conduct and ordered him to stand at attention for one hour.
Wojtek was more than a mascot; he was a symbol. Poland had been dismembered by her enemies and abandoned by her allies. The soldiers felt like exiled orphans, just as Wojtek was an orphan. How amazing that these soldiers, although abused in the Gulags, raised such a tame and gentle bear.
As an enlisted bear, Private Wojtek accompanied the Polish II Corps to Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, and finally to Italy.
A point of great strategic importance in the Italian campaign was the monastery at Montecassino. Other Allied troops had tried in vain to capture it. Only the Poles, under the command of General Anders, had the passion to succeed. Fighting together, Polish Christians and Polish Jews captured the monastery on May 18, 1944. Wojtek, along with his comrades, saluted their white and red flag fluttering atop the mountain. “We soldiers of Poland, give our souls to God.”
After the war, Wojtek enjoyed swimming in the Adriatic, socializing with the Italians and raiding beehives.
The soldiers then went to Scotland to join other exiled Polish military and to decide what to do next. How horrible it must have been, after all their contributions to the war effort, to learn that Churchill and Roosevelt had sold Poland down the river to Stalin. The soldiers felt sure that Wojtek shared their grief.
It was decided that the bear should remain in Scotland, as did many of the soldiers. Those soldiers who returned to Poland risked being arrested as “fascist traitors.”
So Wojtek retired as a gentleman at the Edinburgh Zoo. It is fitting that he spent his remaining years in Scotland; the only country in the world that truly appreciates all that the Poles did to bring about an Allied victory.
He was the zoo’s main attraction, popular with Polish Scots and native Scots alike.
Although he understood Polish, he never learned Scots. People would talk to him, but he didn’t respond. One day, a Polish former comrade-in-arms greeted him with, “Dzień dobry, Wojtek.” He lifted a dinner-plated-sized paw and waved.
This story is dedicated to all the Poles who fought in World War II “for their freedom and ours.”
The Wojtek Memorial Trust
Soldier Bear Wojtek
Short video produced by the Scottish Polish Heritage Project
Piwko dla niedźwiedzia / Beer for a Bear PL/ENG
Longer documentary film; English translations provided
Polish Cemetery at Montecassino
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