Secret Scotland

If it's secret, and in Scotland…

Wojtek surprises still keep turning up

I still find mentions of Wojtek the bear come as something of a surprise, and wish I had got around to writing about his story before he became so well known.

Like the Great Polish Map of Scotland, his story was one I came across in the early days of the Internet, while digging around for Polish history in Scotland arising from the events f World War II.

With so little to go on initially (the Great Map was a ruin and almost lost when I first learnt of its existence – now it has been fully restored), these were things I just kept collecting little pieces of info about, intending to add Wiki pages once I knew enough about them to make them worthwhile. But, events overtook me, and while I was ambling along, the ‘real world’ passed me by and they became mainstream and well-known stories, with Wojtek gaining statues in Edinburgh (and Duns) and Poland.

So, there’s not really much need, or point, in my going over the scant details I once dug up as the story of both of these subject has now been well covered in the media, and by people with access to more information than I ever managed to find.

However, that doesn’t mean new or less well known stories aren’t still to be found, as in this example of a Polish war veteran’s memories.

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.

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.

Polish war veteran and friend of Wojtek the bear shares his incredible life story

The Princes Street statue, as seen the day after it was unveiled back in 2015.

Wojtek Statue Princes Street MJ Richardson

Wojtek Statue Princes Street MJ Richardson

The relief behind shows a number of scenes where Wojtek is seen with the Polish troops he helped, by carrying shells.

25/03/2019 - Posted by | military, World War II | , , , ,

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