I suspect many of you will have heard by now of Wojtek the bear soldier, an orphaned bear who was adopted in 1942 in the mountains of Iran by soldiers from the Polish II Corps of Anders’ exiled Polish army. The story of Wojtek the Bear is as fascinating as it is incredible and moving, for it informs us about war, courage, displacement, human kindness, and the enduring relationship between Scotland and Poland.
Well last Saturday I was honoured to be able to attend the unveiling of a new memorial statute of Wojtek the Bear in Edinburgh’s graceful Princes Street Gardens. The sculpture which is a life and a quarter bronze representation of Wojtek the Bear and his Polish soldier handler, is the culmination of six years’ hard work and dedication of the Wojtek Memorial Trust, an organisation established in Edinburgh in 2009 to help increase understanding and awareness of Wojtek’s story and to foster relations and links between the peoples of Scotland and Poland. The statue, sculpted by Alan Beattie-Herriot, one of the UK’s foremost figurative sculptors is fittingly set on a Polish granite base, transported to Scotland courtesy of the Polish government. Behind Wojtek is a four metre length bronze relief depicting the journey of the soldiers and Wojtek from the mountains of Persia and the deserts of the Middle East; the Mediterranean Campaign and the Battle of Monte Cassino where Wojtek helped at critical times with moving shells and ammunition, and finally Scotland where Wojtek saw out his days as a much-loved attraction at Edinburgh’s zoo.
In spite of heavy rain, hundreds turned out on the day to pay witness to the unveiling of the statute, many of them Poles who have come to Scotland with their families in recent years, but also many locals and people, like myself, with a close connection to both countries. In attendance was Wojciech Narębski, a 90-year-old highly-decorated Polish veteran, who fought alongside Wojtek at the battle of Monte Cassino, and who travelled from his home in Poland especially to attend the event and to unveil the statute.
The war, for all it’s brutality and horror, through the story of Wojtek shows us that we are also capable of great kindness and humanity even in unlikely circumstances. Polish soldiers, in arduous conditions, adopted the half-starved motherless bear cub and nursed him back to full health and strength. Wojtek became not only a friend and mascot for the unit, but a trusted soldier (he was given the rank of Private, and later Corporal) who stood along side and assisted his soldier brothers at critical times of combat.
The Polish flag flew from the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle on Saturday, paying a fitting tribute to the legacy of Wojtek, and the considerable wartime contribution made by Poles to preserving the freedoms we so often take for granted today, and to the continued nurturing of relations between two exceptional countries and their peoples.