Wojtek endeared himself to members of a Polish army unit in 1942 when he alerted them to the presence of a spy in their camp.
The Polish soldiers, who were released by Russia after the German invasion in 1941, were passing through the Middle East on their way back to Europe. Picking up new members on such a trip wouldn't be unusual, but Wojtek's case was a little different because he was a bear.
Wojtek, whose mother is thought to have been shot by hunters, was bought by Polish soldiers while they were in Iran and eventually joined what would become the Polish II Corps' 22nd artillery supply company in 1942.
He continued with them through Iraq and into Egypt.
To board a ship to Europe in 1943, Wojtek needed to be a soldier, so the Poles formally enlisted him as a private — with his own pay book and serial number.
Wojtek, who eventually weigh well over 400 pounds, also got double rations.
“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,” Wojciech Narebski, a Polish soldier who spent three years alongside Wojtek during the war, told the BBC in 2011.
They shared a name — Wojtek is a diminutive form of the name Wojciech, which means “happy warrior.”
Now Wojtek's story is being documented in an animation feature by Iain Harvey, an animator and the executive producer of the 1982 adaptation of Raymond Brigg's children's story “The Snowman,” which was nominated for an Oscar and is still shown every year at Christmas on British television.
The bear wrestled with soldiers and was fond of smoking and drinking
Wojtek sits in front of a soldier.Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia Commons
When he was told about Wojtek, Harvey thought the story was “pure fantasy,” he told the Times of London this week. “It's fantastic to have a piece of magic that's real.”
Wojtek, who eventually rose to the rank of corporal, became a mascot for his unit.
Soldiers would box and wrestle with the bear, who was also fond of smoking and drinking. “For him one bottle was nothing,” Narebski told the BBC. “He was weighing [440 pounds]. He didn't get drunk.”
He was trained not to be a threat to people and was “very quiet, very peaceful,” Narebski said. But he didn't get along with another bear and a monkey that were also adopted by the soldiers.
Wojtek was a source of good cheer for the unit, Narebski told the BBC. “For people who are far from families, far from their home country, from a psychological viewpoint, it was very important.”
But he was more than good company during the fighting in Italy.
A British soldier at the Battle of Monte Cassino said he was surprised to see the six-foot bear hauling artillery shells to resupply Allied forces. The company's patch also featured Wojtek carrying a shell.
The badge of the 22nd Artillery Support Company of the 2nd Polish CorpsImperial War Museum/Wikimedia Commons
Filmmakers released a documentary about Wojtek in 2011. Harvey's project, “A Bear Named Wojtek,” has secured funding from Poland, but he is still seeking a British partner, telling The Times that he would contact Channel 4 and the BBC as well as companies like Netflix.
Harvey's project is being set up for release on the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day on May 8, 2020.
According to The Times, it will take 30 animators roughly a year to produce the 30-minute film, hand-drawing each scene on a tablet.
Narebski last saw Wojtek in April 1945, before the Battle of Bologna in Italy.
Once his unit was demobilized in Scotland, the bear was resettled at the Edinburgh Zoo.
Former members of his unit often visited him at the zoo, where he lived until his death in 1963 at age 21.
Narebski returned to Poland but had trouble keeping in touch with his former comrades — both human and bear — because of restrictions put in place by the Polish government.
He never forgot about Wojtek, however.
“It was very pleasant for me to think about him,” Narebski told the BBC. “I felt like he was my older brother.”
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