Friday, June 27, 2008

Woitek The Bear

When we were in Wrocław on our anniversary trip, I read about a famous figure in Polish history, the story is almost too good to be true, so I wanted to share it with you. Woitek (sounds like Voytek) was a bear who served in the Polish army during WWII. As crazy as it sounds, the story of Woitek is well documented, you can check out an article about Woitek at the BBC website. In 1942 Iran opened it's borders to receive thousands of Polish citizens who had just been released from labor camps in Siberia. The able bodied men were sent westward to join the war efforts. The accounts that I've read say that while on this westward journey to Lebanon, the Polish convoy came across an Iranian boy in the road who was carrying a big sack over his shoulder. It wasn't long before they discovered he had a bear cub inside. The Iranian boy was poor and hungry so they offered him money, a few candy bars, a can of corned beef, and an army penknife in exchange for the bear cub. At eight weeks of age, the cub was very week and malnourished, one article described how Woitek became part of the family,

"A feeding bottle had to be hastily improvised from an empty bottle of vodka into which a handkerchief had been stuffed to serve as a teat. They filled it with condensed milk, diluted it with a little water, and gave it to the little bear to drink. When he had finished it, he crept up close to one of the soldiers for warmth and fell asleep on his chest. The soldier’s name was Piotr (Peter) and he became forever afterward, the bear’s closest and most enduring friend.

The cub clung desperately to his substitute mother all through the tortured journey across Persia, Iraq and Jordan, along vast distances that seemed to loose heart and succumb to the despair of barrenness. Sometimes the man would lock the bear in the warmth of his greatcoat so that it became part of him. In the evenings, as he sat with the other men around the fire telling tales late into the night, the bear cub would be rocked to sleep in the sound of his immense laughter. In time, the orphan lost himself in the lives of these strangers and entangled himself completely in the rhythms and cadences of their speech. From that time onwards he became wholly theirs: body, will and soul."

Strict rules forbade any animals from accompanying the Polish soldiers, so to get around the rules they enlisted Woitek who now had a name and serial number to prove he was a soldier in the Polish army. Woitek was one of the guys, often at night as many as three to four soldiers would wrestle at against him but he never mauled or harmed anyone. Truly Polish, his two favorite treats were vodka and cigarettes which continued even to his last days in the Edinburgh zoo. Woitek's legend reached hero's status in 1944 during the battle for Monte Cassino. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the war in which the shelling was non-stop day and night. One article described Woitek's efforts this way,

"During the most crucial phase of the battle, when pockets of men were cut off on the mountainside desperately in need of supplies, Voytek, who all this time had been watching his comrades frantically loading heavy boxes of ammunition, came over to the trucks, stood on his hind legs in front of the supervising officer and stretched out his paws toward him. It was as if he was saying: “I can do this. Let me help you”. The officer handed the animal the heavy box and watched in wonder as Voytek loaded it effortlessly onto the truck.

Backwards and forwards he continued, time and time again, carrying heavy shells, artillery boxes and food sacks from truck to truck, from one waiting man to another, effortlessly. The deafening noise of the explosions and gunfire did not seem to worry him. Each artillery box held four 23 lbs live shells; some even weighed more than a hundred. He never dropped a single one. And still he went on repeatedly, all day and every day until the monastery was finally taken.

One of the soldiers happened to sketch a picture of Voytek carrying a large artillery shell in his arms, and this image became the symbol of the 22nd artillery transport, worn proudly on the sleeves of their uniforms ever afterwards and emblazoned on all the unit’s vehicles."

In 1947 the Polish army in Scotland was demobilized so a home had to be found for Woitek. He finished his days in the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland. One article that I read said from time to time soldiers from his infantry division would come back to visit. Often throwing him cigarettes and in one instance jumping the fence to wrestle, all of this occurred to the horror of the other onlookers, but Woitek responded to the Polish language and remembered his comrades. Statues of Woitek were placed in the Imperial War Museum in London and in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. So there you go, you learn something new every day don't you.


Pastor Adam Love said...

A great story! I am sure there is a sermon illustration in there somewhere. Keep up the good work in Poland.

The Stover Family said...

I was thinking the same thing about a sermon illustration.