DCSIMG

Smarter than the average bear .. by far

THE six-feet-tall Syrian brown bear shook his empty beer bottle in a paw the size of a soup-plate before holding it up to his eye to check no more could be drained from it.

Onlookers gasped as he opened wide his huge mouth and waited for his soldier friend to toss him a lit cigarette, broken into three bits so he could enjoy a couple of good smokes.

One of those watching in amazement was Jock Pringle, who had been ploughing fields at Sunwick Farm, alongside where Wojtek was staying at the airfield, near Hutton in the Borders.

Giving a beer and a fag to their comrade was the least the Polish soldiers stationed there could do for the brave bear, who had helped them win one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War.

Jock, now 77, recalls: "He had two bottles of beer a day and he loved a fag, though it had to be lit for him. If it wasn't lit he'd spit it back out on his paws. He had one puff and then swallowed it. I was amazed, it was funny and it never seemed to do him any harm."

Now the soldier bear, who went on to enchant children and parents alike at Edinburgh Zoo for nearly 20 years, is set to be the subject of a new Polish documentary.

But his years entertaining the crowds at the city's zoo - and coming to life only when visitors tried a few words of Polish on him - were only the end of an eventful life. His story begins thousands of miles away, high in the mountains along what is now the Iran-Iraq border.

In 1942 it was Persia and was part of the route taken by the Polish Second Corps, a group of Polish soldiers newly released from Soviet slave camps in Siberia. Imprisoned when the Soviets had claimed the eastern half of their country under a 1939 pact with the Nazis, they had been freed after the Germans had invaded Russia in June 1941 and were now on the long trek to join their comrades fighting in Egypt and Italy.

Desperate as their position must have been, it wasn't as bad as the young shepherd boy they met in the mountains. And their offer to share the food they had with the hungry child was rewarded with a gift - the boy handed them a bag containing an orphaned Syrian brown bear cub. There's no record of the soldiers' reaction to this unexpected and slightly unusual gift, but they must have been touched by the small furry bundle they'd been given, as they named him Wojtek, a common Polish man's name, and took him on their travels.

The bear repaid them by becoming an honorary soldier, carrying vital supplies of ammunition and food to his fellow troops during the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, a key victory which opened the road to Rome for the Allies. The 500lb bear padded back and forth with boxes full of live shells from the lorries to the gun emplacements, the same as any other loyal member of the 22nd Transport Company of the Artillery section of the Polish Army. And he passed heavy shells, artillery boxes and food sacks from truck to truck, undeterred by the deafening boom of explosions and gunfire.

In Wojtek's honour, the banner and buttons of the Transport Corps bore the image of a bear, carrying a shell.

After four separate battles in early 1944, the Allies defeated the Germans holding the sixth century hilltop monastery and went on to capture Rome in June that year.

By the following year, at the end of the war, the bear was living with the other Polish soldiers at Winfield Aerodrome on Sunwick Farm, near Hutton in Berwickshire.

But in 1947 the soldiers were demobbed. They were going home to Poland - but they knew for Wojtek, civilian life in Soviet-occupied Poland held few prospects of happiness.

So with heavy hearts, his comrades decided the bear would be better off staying in Scotland and he was sent to Edinburgh Zoo, where he remained until his death in 1963.

Now more or less forgotten, with a bronze statue erected in his honour having been given to the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London - currently on loan to the Imperial War Museum - and even a plaque at the zoo having gone, during his 20 years at the zoo the bear was a well-known and well-loved figure with visitors - although he never forgot his Polish comrades, nor they he.

A book, now out of print, was written about him in 1970. In The Soldier Bear, authors Geoffrey Morgan and W. A. Lasocki, explain how Wojtek drank tea with milk, occasionally fortified with a little vodka, at the zoo and when his Polish soldier friends came, they would - "to the horror of the zoo keepers" - get into his enclosure and wrestle with him, letting him hold their necks in his jaws.

Izabella Brodzinska, chairwoman of the Scottish Polish Cultural Association, came to Edinburgh in 1957 and can remember being taken to see Wojtek at Edinburgh Zoo when she was a teenager.

She says: "My dad used to take me to see him. He told me to speak Polish to him and his head would turn.

"He was a lovely big bear, very sad looking, but when you spoke Polish to him he turned and made a sound. He missed the Polish soldiers."

Aileen Orr, 53, a farmer's wife from Hutton, used to hear stories about Wojtek from her grandfather, who was billeted there with the King's Own Scottish Borderers. One day, when he was talking to the soldier who was Wojtek's closest friend, he found the bear taking a sudden interest in him.

Aileen says: "My grandfather took a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket. Wojtek had been totally uninterested till then, but when he saw the cigarettes he put out a paw the size of a soup-plate and my grandfather gave him one and he smoked it. He'd never seen anything like it.

"The soldiers said he used to sit at night with a cigarette and a can of beer, just like a man."

Her mother and her grandmother took her to see Wojtek for herself at the zoo in 1961, when she was eight.

"Polish friends told us the Polish word for 'wave' and we went to the railings and waved and shouted it. He was like an old man and waved back. He was a very good looking bear and very well-fed.

"He obviously liked being the centre of attention and liked human beings."

But her visit was tinged with sadness to see the bear behind bars. "He was a bit of a circus act at the zoo, but the choice had been to put him in the zoo or put him down. Europe was ravaged by war and there was civil unrest in so many places."

Now Wojtek is due to be introduced to a whole new generation of Poles, thanks to the documentary which is due to start shooting in Edinburgh and the Borders in a month's time.

Edinburgh-based Pole Michal Grzybczak, a 26-year-old photographer who lives on Easter Road, is helping research the bear's life. He says: "Not many people in Poland know this story. We lived under the Soviet influence for many years so we were taught that only the Soviet Army was good in the World Wars."

And David Windmill, chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, which owns Edinburgh Zoo believes Wojtek will never be forgotten.

He says: "He was a special part of the Zoo's history and I'm sure interest in him will continue."

The facts

The Syrian Brown Bear - or Ursus arctos syriacus - is the smallest subspecies of brown bear - others include the North American grizzly.

They are omnivorous, eating almost any type of food, including meat, grass, and fruits.

Historically they were found in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel - they are thought to be the bears referred to in the Bible - Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, although their population is in decline due to loss of habitat and poaching.

Brown bears' weight can vary between 100kg and one tonne and their size also depends on where they live and what their diet is, ranging from two to three metres from head to tail.

Their retractable claws can grow to five inches long and they can run at up to 30mph - but only in short bursts.

They live for up to 35 years.

 
 
 

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