Polish war veteran and friend of Wojtek the bear shares his incredible life story
When Polish veteran Ludwik Jaszczur paid his respects to his wartime comrade Jozef Urbanski’s widow Zofia Urbanska at his funeral 40 years ago, little did he know it would be the next chapter in a remarkable life.
The pair, grieving from the death of a true friend and husband, found solace in each other, and vowed to carry on the late Jozef Urbanski’s legacy with their leather goods shop on Lauriston Street.
Now, at 92 years of age, Mr Jaszczur has finally decided to call it a day, and close up the shop for good.
Speaking to the Evening News, Ludwik recounted a life that involved capture at the hands of the Nazis while still a child, a daring escape, and an unlikely lifelong friendship with Wojtek, the bear whom he fought beside in the hellhole of Monte Cassino and visited regularly in Edinburgh Zoo.
In 1939, Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland saw 12-year-old Ludwik forcefully removed from his family home in a small village in eastern Poland and taken to a German farm between Berlin and the Polish border.
“They grabbed me by the neck and took me from my house and parents,” he says, adding that this was the last time he ever saw them or his brother, who was also taken to Germany to become a slave worker.
“I had a window to the garden but with metal bars in case I tried to escape from Germany. I was like a prisoner.”
Ludwik recounted the Germans losing control around 1943 as Russian soldiers began approaching, which he believes facilitated his escape. He remembers fleeing Germany by train with a handful of fellow Polish slave workers in the area to join the second Polish Corps under General Wladyslaw Anders.
“It was very difficult because Germans were occupying everywhere. We had to hide all the time in case they tried to attack us.”
They were headed for Italy, where he would become a young Polish soldier fighting in the battle of Monte Cassino alongside the famous “soldier bear” Wojtek.
“I’ll tell you the truth. Wojtek helped us win the Second World War,” he insists.
“But the bear was very timid, you could cuddle him he would cuddle you. He would sometimes drink beer, smoke cigarettes. He was friendly like a pussycat.”
In 1946 Ludwik arrived at a displaced soldier camp in Ayrshire, one of many camps around Scotland used to house soldiers until Poland was freed from Soviet control. When demobilised, he began working in the local hospital making beds and feeding patients before being convinced to go to school to train as a nurse. He then went on to be a surgical instrument maker for a private firm in Edinburgh.
His repairing skills impressed his bosses and he soon advanced to fixing typewriters and office machinery at Remington for nearly half a century.
“I was never taught these things – my brain is perfect that way. I just see and that’s it.”
At the grand age of 92 Ludwik can still be found repairing intricate zips and locks for leather handbags on Lauriston Street, with what he claims to be unbeatable precision.
His wife of 40 years had owned the shop with her previous husband, who Ludwik met occasionally at a Polish Club in Edinburgh and also fought alongside in Italy during the war. The club was open to any member of the Polish expat community and attracted many veterans as a place where old friends could share their stories.
The transition from repairing machinery to accessories came after Ludwik was made redundant at Remington. Having never visited the shop before, he decided to see Mrs Urbanska at Leather Goods after a brief encounter at her late husband’s funeral. “She point blank refused to sell me what I wanted. Do you know what she did? She invited me to the workshop for a cup of tea. That was 40 years ago and I’m still drinking her cups of tea.”
The shop, however, looks to have been fully adopted by Ludwik over the years. Pictures of him as a young boy and as a soldier in uniform line the walls behind the counter and the numerous Wojtek the bear ornaments scattered around have proven to provoke interesting conversations about his life with customers. Ludwik plans on retiring at the end of March, claiming he is getting too old to perform his repairs to the standard he would like. He is considering flying to Poland after Polish Television approached him with plans to produce a film commemorating Polish Veterans and Wojtek.
“If I don’t kick the bucket,” he says, “I will return to Poland in the spring.”
Wojtek: The furry comrade who fought alongside Poles and became an Edinburgh icon
Wojtek the bear was adopted by a group of Polish soldiers who had recently been released from Siberian Gulags.
The soldiers found the allegedly orphaned bear in Iran on their way to the Middle East from Siberia.
They quickly formed a close bond with the bear, which was said to behave more like a dog or a small child than a wild animal, and Wojtek eventually become the mascot of the Polish II Corps 22nd Artillery.
The bear joined the soldiers as they campaigned alongside allied forces in Iraq and Egypt and on to Italy where he carried artillery shells from supply vehicles to the company artillery positions during the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino.
Wojtek was officially made a Polish soldier, complete with his own papers when he needed to board the boat to get to Italy, made only possible by properly enlisting him and giving him a pay book.
Wojtek was said to enjoy beer and cigarettes and received double rations due to his size of around 30 stone.
After the end of hostilities Wojtek was demobbed to Winfield Camp for displaced soldiers in Berwickshire alongside the rest of his unit and was moved to Edinburgh Zoo where he lived until his death in 1963.
“I used to go to the zoo, I would throw him cigarettes, throw him chocolate, he used to enjoy it,” recalls Ludwik Jaszczur.
Many visitors, including Ludwik, claim Wojtek’s ears would twitch at the sound of his mother tongue. “Everything he understood in Polish,” he claimed.
The statue of “Edinburgh’s adopted bear” sits in Princes Street Gardens and was erected in November 2015.
Mr Jaszczur attended the unveiling, organised by the Wojtek Memorial Trust, wearing his uniform and holding a Polish flag.
The battles that gave Poles fame
The series of assaults in 1944, best known as The Battle of Monte Cassino, were among the most gruelling and bloody battles of the Italian Campaign during the Second World War.
The landscape and intense weather made the region near Cassino particularly difficult to battle through.
It was one of the longest battles, spreading from January to May and involved attempts from numerous allied troops.
The Second Polish Corps were involved in one of the last, and only successful assaults of Monte Cassino that consisted of 20 allied divisions fighting along a front line stretching 20 miles.
Two days into the assault both a Polish flag and a Union jack were raised above Cassino.
Despite the victory, a total of 55,000 allied troops were killed or wounded, with only around 20,000 German casualties reported.
According to numerous accounts, during the battle when Wojtek’s unit conveyed ammunition, he helped by carrying 100-pound crates of 25-pound artillery shells, all without dropping a single one.
Author of the Book Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero, and founder of the Wojtek Memorial Trust Aileen Orr told the Evening News: “I have no Polish blood, but all my life my grandfather [who fought with King’s Own Scottish Borderers] would tell me ‘always remember what the Poles did for you’.
“The Polish soldiers were sort of airbrushed out of the war but it is so important we respect and remember all of our Second World War veterans.”