By Kenny Hodgart

In his own lifetime, Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear adopted by Polish soldiers in the Second World War, was a celebrity among his comrades. Seven decades on, in Scotland, his legend is undergoing a renaissance thanks to the efforts both of the Polish community itself and of local artists and writers.

Wojtek the Bear

Wojtek, the brave, beer-drinking bear who became a Polish war hero, was a legend in his own lifetime.

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Early life

Wojtek at play with a soldier
Wojtek at play with a soldier, used with permission from Lady Brigid McEwen

Acquired as an orphaned cub in Iran, the young Wojtek was soon well-travelled: with the Artillery Supply Command of the Polish Second Corps he saw fighting in the deserts of north Africa, where the Second Corps joined the British fight against Rommel’s forces, and in Italy.

Following demobilisation to Berwickshire, Wojtek lived his days out at Edinburgh Zoo. The image of him that abides, however, is of a honey-loving, beer-drinking war hero who loved to wrestle his mates and would salute when greeted by them.

“He didn’t think he was a bear; he thought he was a soldier,” says Krystyna Ivell, who was a girl when she and her mother were released from internment in Siberia in 1941 and fled, along with thousands of others, via the ‘Persian Corridor’, to the Middle East.

“I never met him, but we followed his footsteps. Everyone knew of Wojtek. He was essential to the soldiers. He wasn’t a cuddly toy or a cartoon character; he was a serious morale-booster for them. They might be killed or they might lose their friends, but here was this animal that kept their sanity in a way. They gave him amusement and affection and he returned it in spades.”