A STATUE of Wojtek the bear has been officially unveiled in Princes Street Gardens during a ceremony overseen by Polish war veterans and city dignitaries.
Wojtek – dubbed the “soldier bear” – was rescued as a cub by the Free Polish Army during the Second World War and quickly became an unlikely mascot and friend to the homesick men.
The 6ft animal bonded with the troops through play-fighting, “smoking” cigarettes and drinking beer – and even helped carry ammunition at the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino.
After the war he travelled to Scotland with the demobbed Polish solders and spent his twilight years in Edinburgh Zoo.
On Saturday, hundreds of people stood in heavy rain in West Princes Street Gardens to see the bear’s £300,000 sculpture and remember the Polish men and women who fought and died during the war.
The statue, designed by artist Alan Beattie Herriot, shows Wojtek and a Polish soldier “walking in peace and unity” – representing the Syrian brown bear’s journey from his Middle East home to Scotland.
Polish veteran Professor Wojciech Narebski was on hand to unveil the artwork to the waiting crowd.
The retired soldier, who served with the bear, spoke of his “deepest gratitude” for “this great thing you have made”, adding: “Wojtek could not return to Poland, but he is staying on Polish soil.”
Helena Scott, secretary of the Wojtek Memorial Trust, said: “The trust wishes to thank all our supporters and donors for their generosity which has enabled us to progress and achieve a key objective of the charity, namely to erect a monument fitting to Polish veterans of the Second World War, and to the many men, women and children displaced as a consequence of the war and its aftermath, as told through the story of Wojtek the soldier bear.
“For those born of Polish parents, the unveiling is particularly poignant because we represent a generation that bridges between those post-war Poles who settled in Scotland and the younger generation, those that have made Scotland their home in more recent years.
“Wojtek’s story has enabled us to come together and to span a history of some 70 years of post-war Polish-Scottish relations – to celebrate but also to commemorate.”
Saturday’s unveiling was the result of a long-running campaign by the Wojtek Memorial Trust to keep the memory of the bear and Polish troops alive.
Lord Provost Donald Wilson said he was “thrilled” that the trust had “succeeded in immortalising Wojtek in such a significant and appropriate way”.
He said: “The story of Edinburgh’s adopted bear is a cherished one and has become a firm family favourite, but this statue stands for more than that.
“It makes a statement about fighting for freedom and showing support and comfort to those who are suffering.
“It celebrates the ties that have been established in Edinburgh and Poland between our communities and strives to further strengthen this bond over time.”