Story of Poland's 'soldier bear' Wojtek turned into film

By Martin Vennard
BBC World Service

Media caption,
Man or beast? Meet Wojtek the soldier bear

One of the odder animal stories of World War II has been turned into a documentary.

When Wojciech Narebski was called to see his new commanding officer in what was the British mandate of Palestine in October 1942 he was in for a big surprise.

"I was very astonished because in front of his tent was lying a bear," Mr Narebski says, thinking back nearly seven decades.

Thus began a near three-year friendship between Wojtek the bear and the then 17-year-old Polish soldier.

The bond between the two was strengthened by the fact that they shared the same first name, as the diminutive form of Wojciech in Polish is Wojtek.

A few months before meeting his namesake, Wojtek the bear was sold as a small cub to some Polish soldiers and civilians in Iran.

They were making their way from Siberia to the Middle East after being released from camps in Russia. The Nazi German invasion in 1941 prompted the Soviet Union to let the Poles go.

It is thought the cub's mother was shot by hunters.

"He was like a child, like a small dog. He was given milk from a bottle, like a baby. So therefore he felt that these soldiers are nearly his parents and therefore he trusted in us and was very friendly," Mr Narebski told BBC World Service.

Cigarettes and beer

Wojtek was adopted by what became known as the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. "He really was feeling like a member of our small military family," says Mr Narebski.

Now the 86-year-old professor of geochemistry and petrology has travelled from his home in Krakow, Poland, to London for the UK premiere of the documentary, Wojtek - The Bear That Went To War.

The film is narrated by actor Brian Blessed and consists of a mixture of interviews, reconstructions, contemporary stills and animation. It recounts the epic wartime journey to Scotland made by Wojtek and his comrades in arms, as they supplied the front line.

It took them to Iraq and Egypt and when they wanted to take Wojtek on a ship to Italy he had to be officially enlisted as a soldier.

"He had a pay book. He didn't receive money, but was officially a Polish soldier," Mr Narebski says. Because of his size Wojtek received double rations.

He says Wojtek liked play-fighting and boxing with his colleagues and asking for unlit cigarettes, which he would eat. Wojtek also had a liking for beer. "For him one bottle was nothing, he was weighing 200kg [440 lb]. He didn't get drunk."

Image caption,
Wojtek was said to have a gentle nature despite his size

Mr Narebski says Wojtek was brought up not to be a danger to humans. "He was very quiet, very peaceful." However, he did take a dislike to a monkey and another bear, who had also been adopted by troops.

He says Wojtek helped keep up the troops' morale. "For people who are far from families, far from their home country, from a psychological viewpoint, it was very important."


The film's director, Will Hood, says of Wojtek's story: "It does have absolutely everything. It's a got a Shakespearean epicness. It's a story of war, a story of love, a story of loss. There's a huge amount of pathos towards the end of the film.

"It's possible to make an analogy with Wojtek's story and the story of the Polish people, in a way which touches on the politics of the Second World War, which is a far more personable and humanistic story, which is, of course, ironic as we're talking about a bear.

"The fact that he himself thought he was a human, so the legend has it, I think it asks some very interesting questions about what it is to be human."

In one interview, a British veteran tells how he was taken aback one day to see the 1.82m (6ft) bear carrying shells during the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. The company emblem became a picture of Wojtek carrying a shell.

Mr Narebski says that on one summer's day when they were driving along Italy's Adriatic coast near Ancona, Wojtek spotted the sea. "He jumped out and went to the beach. And on the beach there were many Italian girls taking a bath. You can imagine what happened. I said, 'Girls, don't be afraid. This bear is good'."

Brothers in arms

Mr Narebski last saw Wojtek in Italy before the Battle of Bologna in April 1945.

Image caption,
Wojtek went on many journeys as he accompanied the Polish soldiers from the Middle East to Scotland

After the war his company was demobbed in Berwickshire, Scotland, while Wojtek was taken to live at Edinburgh Zoo, where some of the ex-troops would visit him.

Mr Narebski spent time in Yorkshire before returning to Poland. It was difficult for him to correspond with his former comrades who stayed in Scotland because of the restrictions in Poland, but he never forgot Wojtek.

"The communist authorities in Poland wanted to take him to the zoo in Poland, but my colleagues who were staying in Scotland were against this.

"It was very pleasant for me to think about him. I felt like he was my older brother," Mr Narebski says.

However he did hear about Wojtek's death in 1963. "It was very sorrowful news," says Mr Narebski.

The film will be shown on BBC Scotland in December.

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