Wojtek the Soldier Bear

December 14, 2013
Hero Bear

The Soldier Bear

Reblogged from Newzar (by Kamila Kulma)

The Wojtek Memorial Trust will erect a statue of the famous Nazi-battling brown bear that became the pride of General Władysław Anders’ Army. The bronze statue will stand in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh in 2014. “It will be a symbol of friendship between Poland and the United Kingdom,” said Robin Barnett, British Ambassador to Poland. Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear, was found in Iran by a local boy in April 1942. He sold the bear cub to soldiers of the Polish Army stationed nearby for a couple of cans of meat. As a cub, Wojtek had problems swallowing so the little bear was fed condensed milk from a vodka bottle. Later, the soldiers fed him fruit, marmalade, honey and beer, which became his favourite drink. Wojtek became the mascot of all the Polish units stationed nearby and was taught to salute. He enjoyed smoking and eating cigarettes. When the Polish Army was later deployed in Europe the only way to keep Wojtek, also known as the ‘Soldier Bear’, was given a rank and number. Consequently, Wojtek was officially drafted into the General Anders Army and listed among the soldiers of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. Together with the soldiers, firstly as a rank-and-file soldier and then with the rank of corporal, he moved from Iran to Iraq and then through Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Italy. An image of Wojtek carrying an artillery shell became the official symbol of 22nd Company. As the end of the WWII approached, the future of the Polish Army was uncertain. Many soldiers who served in the same unit as Wojtek were from eastern Poland. This territory was invaded by Stalin in 1939 and the Yalta Conference legitimised the Soviet territorial smash-and-grab leaving many Polish soldiers with no homes to go back to. Most of them remained in exile, including Wojtek.

Polish War Hero

Brothers-in-arms

In 1946 the Polish bear sailed together with his brothers-in-arms of the General Anders Army to Clydes and were then transported to Berwickshire. A year later Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo where he spent the remaining years of his life. He was often visited by journalists and his Polish friends from the army who tossed him sweets and cigarettes. Wojtek continued to react to words spoken in Polish. Sadly, Wojtek died in December 1963 in Edinburgh Zoo. “Wojtek deserves to be called a War Hero who moved soldiers’ hearts,” said British Ambassador to Poland, Robin Barnett. “He was a soldier who helped strengthen the friendship between Brits and Poles. As the beloved mascot of the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps not only did he boost morale but he also supported his fellow soldiers on the fields of combat. He took active participation in the Battle of Monte Cassino during which Polish soldiers played a major role,” said Robin Barnett. In his opinion, the story of Wojtek is inspiring and has great historic significance. Dorota Gałaszewska-Chilczuk of the Office of War Veterans and Victims of Oppression emphasised that Wojtek made important contributions to winning WWII. She added that he served and was paid like every other soldier. In his case the salary were increased portions of food and beer as a bonus. He was very close with his fellow soldiers and lived with the other men in the same tent. During the Battle of Monte Cassino, Wojtek transported ammunition and never dropped a single crate. He also carried heavy mortar rounds. “The Soldier Bear took part in the liberation of Ancona and Bologna,” said Galaszewska-Chilczuk. She also added that Wojtek became very popular among civilians and the press when he arrived in Scotland.

Brothers-in-arms

Hero among Heroes

The Polish-Scottish Association made Wojtek an honorary member. “In order to pay homage to the Soldier Bear,” said Krystyna Szumelakowa, of the Wojtek Memorial Trust, “the story of war and friendship will be immortalised with a bronze statue”. The Wojtek Memorial Trust hopes that the life-sized statue will be unveiled in 2014, on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Monte Cassino. “The statue will be cast in Poland and given to Scottish authorities as a present from Poland,” explained Szumelakowa. Thanks to the efforts of the Trust a special tartan has been created in honour of Wojtek. Deirdre Kinloch Anderson, senior director at Leith-based kilt and Highland dress experts Kinloch Anderson, the designers of the Wojtek tartan, said she was “extremely proud” of helping to design the tartan dedicated to Wojtek. The story of Wojtek was popularised by former soldiers of the Polish II Corps, Wieslaw Lasocki, author of the book, “Wojtek from Monte Cassino – the Story of an Amazing Bear”, published in 1968. Writer Aileen Orr, whose book “Wojtek The Bear – Polish War Hero” was published in 2010, heard the story of Wojtek from her grandfather, a King’s Own Scottish Borderers colour sergeant who met the bear in Egypt and Palestine before he met him again later in Scotland. There is now a plaque dedicated to the legendary bear in Edinburgh Zoo. There are also plaques commemorate Wojtek’s war efforts in the War Museum in London, the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa and in the Sikorski Insitute in London. In March 2009, the Scottish Parliament organised a reception to honour Wojtek. Every Remembrance Day, Scottish people gather at the Polish Memorial Garden in Edinburgh, many of them with teddy bears, which later are donated to charities for sick children.

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2010 – Remembering the Past

January 8, 2010

Fighting the Nazis

Fighting the Nazis

The beginning of a new year is always a good time to look forward but it’s equally important to keep one eye on the past and not forget the things that should not be forgotten. Particularly striking for me was the death of one of the last surviving members of Germany’s Anti-Nazi movement. Freya von Moltke lived to the ripe-old age of 98 and passed away on the first day of 2010, January 1st.

Plotting Against Hitler

Plotting Against Hitler

It’s useful remembering that during WWII not all Germans were overtaken by the wave of insanity that gripped the German nation. There were those who resisted and those, even, who fought. One such group, Der Kreisauer Kreis (the Kreisau Circle), actively helped the Allies and plotted against the authorities of the Nazi Reich. The Kreis effectively ceased to exist when Helmuth von Moltke, Freya’s husband, was arrested by the Nazis.

Stopping the Nazis

Stopping the Reich

Freya along with her husband and the other members of the Kreis were members of Germany’s pre-war aristocracy. Diplomats and clerics also filled the ranks of this resistance group. What was crucial was that the world could see that not all Germans had lost their minds. Importantly, many members of Germany’s elite belonged to this group and this sent an important signal out to the Allies: Germany was not lost.

Krzyżowa Palace Gives Hope

Krzyżowa Palace Gives Hope

Freya von Moltke’s work did not end when her husband was put to death by the Nazis and the Kreis fell apart. She continued to publicise both the Kreis’s and her husband’s work after the war. For Poland, hers was an important role because she supported the transformation of her former estate (in Kreisau, now Krzyżowa) into a centre for Polish-German reconciliation and later, European integration. May her memory live on. Freya von Moltke: March 29, 1911 – January 1, 2010.


Edelman – Last of the Bundists?

October 5, 2009

RIP Marek Edelman 1919/22-2009

RIP Marek Edelman 1919-2009

Although the title of this piece is, in all probability, utterly misleading, it is not without reason I pin the moniker “Last of the Bundists” on the head of the departed Marek Edelman. There are several reasons. Firstly, he was most certainly the last of a dying breed. Marek Edelman passed away on the 2nd October 2009 at the age of 90. He was the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, fighting tooth and nail for Poland’s decimated Jewish population. He was a member of Solidarity and took part in the Round Table Talks which triggered the beginning of the end for communism in Europe. He received Poland’s Order of the White Eagle and France’s Legion of Honour for his wartime bravery and opposition activism.

Edelman Survived the Ghetto

Edelman Survived the Ghetto

Secondly, Marek Edelman was in every sense a true hero. Honoured in Poland, France and the US, and respected across Europe, this humble man decided to stay in Poland after the war and not, like so many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, emigrate to the newly forming State of Israel, then still the British Mandate of Palestine. He had fought and witnessed most of his friends and family die at the hands of the Nazis. To have survived such atrocities and then take up and leave was not Edelman’s style. He had defended Warsaw so that Warsaw and its inhabitants would live on. He would not be leaving Poland’s capital.

Edelman & the Round Table Talks

Edelman & the Round Table Talks

It is odd then that Edelman, a Jew and the last surviving leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, was never honoured by or afforded the same degree of respect in Israel that he was given in Europe and the US.  In trying to explain the “Last of the Bundists” sobriquet we should remmber that Marek Edelman belonged to the the Jewish Labour Party ‘Bund’ and was an outspoken anti-Zionist and a firm critic of Israel’s foreign policy in particular with regards to its middle-eastern neighbours. It was difficult for him, a socialist and supporter of Solidarity (and solidarity), to come to terms with what had become of the State of Israel. In this sense he really was the “Last of the Bundists”…

Marek Edelman 1919-2009, wartime hero, political activist and cardiologist will be sorely missed.


The Creation of Genocide

September 14, 2009

Re-interpreting Mass Murder

The Great Rafał Lemkin

Rafał Lemkin (better known as Raphael Lemkin) was born in a country that did not exist. In 1900, the year of Lemkin’s birth, Poland had not yet regained its independence, yet Rafał Lemkin considered himself Polish. The village of Bezwodne (not too far from Grodno, now in Belarus), the birthplace of this great man, lay in what was then Imperial Russia. Being both Polish (with no Poland) and Jewish (with Anti-Semitism particularly strong in Imperial Russia), Lemkin knew exactly what it meant to be  part of an ostracised minority. He knew what it meant to be different. He was therefore also acutely aware of the importance and value of freedom.

NY Times Reports... (1915)

NY Times Reports... (1915)

Rafał Lemkin studied linguistics at the Jan Kazimierz University of Lwów. While at Lwów, he became interested and then began researching the Armenian massacre at the hands of the Turks in 1915-1916. He was later to continue his research into similar massacres of this kind with work on the Simele massacre in which the Iraqi government ordered the murder and forced exile of the Assyrians in 1933. Lemkin, through his research, became interested in crime and justice and, through his grounding in linguistics, was disturbed by the lack of definitions of various crimes, particularly those perpetrated by the Turks and the Iraqis.

Nuremberg Trials

Nuremberg Trials

When Hilter began his rampage through Poland killing Jews, Poles and many others in the Nazi death camps, Lemkin saw that the mistakes and atrocities of the past perpetrated on the Armenians and Assyrians were coming back to haunt humanity and in particular him – he was both Jewish and Polish. He felt the need to define these atrocities from a criminal (and linguistic) point of view. In 1943 Lemkin coined the word genocide from the Greek genos (tribe, race) and the Latin –cide (killing) to describe what Hitler and the Nazis were doing. Lemkin’s definition of genocide became a part of international law and one of the legal bases of the Nuremberg Trials against Nazi war criminals.

Katyń - War Crime or Genocide?

Katyń - War Crime or Genocide?

In his own words, Lemkin said, “By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group… Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor”. The word “genocide” has been in the news in recent weeks. Many Polish politicians declare the Katyń massacre of 1940 by the Soviets on Polish military officers and intellectuals to be genocide. The Russians, of course, do not agree. Several days ago, the Deputy Speaker of the House Stefan Niesiołowski hit the headlines by stating that Katyń was a war crime, not genocide.

Legacy of Katyń

Legacy of Katyń

This comment has not only outraged members of the opposition, particularly Law and Justice (PiS) leader Jarosław Kaczyński, but also members of Niesiołowski’s own party Civic Platform (PO). Kaczyński claims that Niesiołowski has gone too far and is being disloyal to his country. The Polish parlimanent wishes to pass a resolution this week regarding the atrocities of WWII. The PiS resolution talks about genocide, rape, murder perpertrated on the Polish nation by two totalitarian governments. PO prefers a milder resolution. However, the question of whether Katyń is “genocide” (as Lemkin defined it) or not still seems unresolved.


If Only…

September 7, 2009

Another Time, Another Warsaw

Another Time, Another Warsaw

… the Second World War would have never taken place. What would have happened? What would Poland be like now? I came across an interesting article by Piotr Gursztyn in Dziennik who probably fancies himself as a writer of alternate history. In it, he paints an interesting picture of a Poland untouched by war but ravaged by a host of other problems. The post below is based loosely on this article. The year is 2009. To the left of Poland we find the German Third Reich, to the right of Poland we find the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Europe is not a happy place, constant bickering, skirmishes and trans-border terrorism is the norm.

Złoczów, Eastern Poland

Złoczów, Eastern Poland

Chamberlain’s words “peace in our time” could not be further from the truth. Thankfully, the 1930s and 40s passed without incident, although Germany managed to take most of Czechia as well as Danzig. The USSR put pressure on Poland to relinquish its eastern territories to the Ukrainian SSR but their territorial demands were not met, although Poland was forced into a more conciliatory stance regarding the Kresy turning itself into a federative republic and the Lwów, Stanisławów and Tarnopol Provinces into Autonomous Provinces (together with the already Autonomous Province of Silesia).

Kaunas, Capital of Lithuania

Kaunas, Capital of Lithuania

Poland’s third largest city is Lwów, its sixth largest city is Wilno. The Jan Kazimierz University of Lwów is Poland’s most prestigious university pushing the University of  Warsaw and the Jagiellonian University of Kraków into second and third place respectively. Poland’s holiday-makers keep away from the Baltic Coast and the gigantic port in sprawling Gdynia. Poles prefer to travel to the Wilno Lakes (the Mazurian Lakelands are in Germany) or to the wildlands of Czarnohora near the Romanian border.

Stettin, Foreign City

Stettin, Foreign City

International scholars flock to Warsaw, Lwów and Wilno for conferences in mathematics, logic and philosophy which Poland excels in, as well as to make use of the wonderful libraries, archives and academic know-how housed in these three centres of excellence. Poland is one of Europe’s largest countries with a population of 61 million, however, it is a country divided, with little love lost between Poles, Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Germans. Poland is a state where only 60% of the population is Polish.

Königsberg, Prussian Capital

Königsberg, Prussian Capital

Foreign politicians and commentators speak of a ‘powerful Poland’ and ‘Polish pride’, ‘Polish strength’ and ‘Polish power’ yet they also talk of ‘Polish arrogance’, ‘Polish regional hegemony’ and the ‘Polish patchwork’. Patchwork? Poland is a country marked by huge differences. East and west are economically worlds apart. Poland’s successive nationalist governments have done little to help incorporate the minorities. Jews, Ukrainians and Belarusians belong to very different social groups. Poland forever seems to be on the verge of social collapse. The Ukrainian terrorism of the 1950s has subsided, the anti-Jewish violence of the 1960s has stopped but without a long-term vision, the future for Poland does not look bright.


Who actually Won the War?

May 27, 2009

GERMAN Nazis

GERMAN Nazis

The events of the last few days have led me to ask the question: “Who actually won World War II?” Noises from the political elite in Germany and an even greater hoohah in Poland have got me thinking about two issues: (1) the necessity for Germany to feel responsible for the Holocaust and the slaughter of so many innocent lives in World War II, and (2) the growing rise of negationism, or rather historical relativism.

German Revisionism
The surprising news that has come out of Germany is that the two political powerhouses, the CDU and CSU, have called for the European Parliament to back a decision to condemn all forms of forced
repatriation. Without such a joint EU declaration, Germany has intimated that it will not agree to further expansion of the European Union. This is all well and good and indeed forced repatriating should be condemned but this issue deflects away from the causes of the last forced exodus in Europe. As we all know, the forced repatriation of millions of European citizens was a direct result of the Nazi attack on Poland in 1945. The CDU and CSU have also added that all laws and rights violated through repatriation need to be reversed. This appears to be a call to give compensation to those Germans who were forced out of Poland after the war, a war the Germans began!

Polish Oversensitiveness
This has caused an almighty explosion of outrage in Poland. The first to respond to Germany’s call was Jarosław Kaczyński who has called upon PM Donald Tusk for his Civic Platform (PO) to leave the the European People’s Party-European Democrats (EPP-ED) political group, the group to which both PO and the CDU and CSU belong in a mark of protest against this German revisionism. He has also called the PO “weak” in the face of German brute force and expansionism. Germany has also stated that it wishes the German language to be stronger within the EU. There’s no getting away from the fact that Jarosław Kaczyński made these statements for political gain but he’s not all that wrong about Germany trying to deflect away from the cause of Europe’s most recent forced bout of repatriations.

European Problems
Yes, Poland is oversensitive. But wouldn’t you be a little touchy if you had experienced what the inhabitants of Poland experienced during the war. Not only was Poland’s Jewish population wiped out but its other citizens also faced humiliation, torture and death at the hands of the German Nazis. Any calls for a re-evaluation of the facts will unsurprisingly cause a stir. Two things need to happen for Europe to take a good look at itself and grow up. Firstly, not only Germany and Poland but ALL of the EU’s member states need to sit down and talk, not only at the ministerial level but at the level of local communities to see how these issues still affect us all today. Secondly, Europe needs to learn the true meaning of solidarity and the meaning of ‘being European’, whatever that means.


History is Gross (Part II)

January 28, 2008

Jewish CemeteryHistory is brutal, history is merciless, history leaves no stone unturned. When the Nazis began the invasion of Poland they destroyed two nations. The Ashkenazi Jews were exterminated. Utterly. Together with the Soviets, the Nazis successfully decimated the Polish ruling classes.

Cultural Vacuum
The Jews were left with nothing. There were none left. The Poles were left with a nation in tatters, in the iron grip of Stalin. Without true leaders and role models (who had all been murdered by either the Nazis or the Soviets), Poland wandered like a blind man in the first few years of its forcibly re-shaped and hermetic state.

Cultural Backlash
The Jews who had helped set up the embryonic communities in the Middle East were creating a new Israeli identity. The Poles in post-war Poland were of a different ilk from those who had existed before the war. The Israeli Jews took on Zionism, Hebraism and a brash type of patriotism as a response to peace-loving Ashkanazi society and the need to survive in their new environment surrounded by Arab (anti-Jewish) states. The Polish communists got on the patriotic bandwagon in order to help rebuild the new socialist Poland.

Social Change
A great part of post-war Polish society was largely uneducated or poorly educated. Unfortunately, ignorance is not bliss. Ignorance is never bliss. After surviving the Nazi occupation, Poland now had to deal with the Soviet occupation. Poland, we must remember, had won the war. Many post-war Poles felt like the victims.

Divided Society
It is not surprising that the Poles felt cheated after ‘winning’ the war. Many of the Jews who survived the war embraced communism as, what they believed, to be the antithesis of National Socialism. Many of the highest ranking communists in Poland were in fact Jews. And this fact began to irk the uneducated masses. The seed of discontent had been sown.

New Perspective
What happened during the war and after the war was appalling. What many Poles did to their fellow (Jewish) Poles was not only reprehensible, criminal but also disgusting. Perspective allows us to see the big picture and the real context. That does not mean Poland is in any way off the hook. Gross’ book allows us to review our perspective on history. And this, we all have to live with.