Wojtek the Polish Artillery Bear

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Has an animal ever given you the courage to carry on, or helped ease the grief that comes when you're far too far from home?

In August 1939, the Soviet Union (modern-day Russia) and Nazi Germany made a secret pact to conquer and divide the nation of Poland, located smack-dab in the center of Europe. In a matter of weeks, while Britain and France looked helplessly on, Poland was wiped off the face of the map. The Soviets deported over 300,000 Poles to forced labor camps, called gulags, in Siberia, while the Germans sent even more to their infamous concentration camps. The exiled Poles had little hope of ever seeing their homeland again.

Then in 1941, Nazi Germany turned on its former ally, the Soviet Union. As German troops invaded the by now war-weary communist nation, Joseph Stalin freed many of his Polish prisoners. They were allowed to leave so that they could join the fight against Hitler in Western Europe. But to do so, they would have to circle around the Nazis, who by now occupied lands as far south as Greece and as far east as Bulgaria and The Ukraine.

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Their first destination? Iran. Once there, exhausted, tired, hungry, and homesick in a wholly foreign land, a group of Poles stumbled across an Iranian boy playing with an orphaned bear cub. The Poles felt an immediate connection with the bear: a fellow exile without family and too far from home. They pooled their money and purchased the bear on April 8, 1942. They named him Wojtek, meaning “Joyful Warrior” in Polish. Little did they know then how he would live up to the name!

Wojtek grew up in the diaspora with the Polish refugees as they moved from Iran to Iraq, then to Palestine and Egypt. He was an extraordinarily gentle and quiet bear who relished spending time with people. He play-wrestled and even drank bottles of beer with the lonely Poles. Though he didn't much like it when someone brought a monkey into camp!

In January 1944, the Polish men were recruited to join the Western Allies in southern Italy to help take back Monte Cassino and open the way to Nazi-occupied Rome. The Poles insisted to the perplexed British authorities that Wojtek be commissioned too. To help raise the morale of their new conscripts, the Brits made Wojtek a Corporal of the Polish Armed Forces, the first bear to receive such a distinction. They even gave Wojtek a "paycheck" of double rations of his favorite foods: honey and marmalade.

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At Monte Cassino, Wojtek was no mere mascot. He lumbered back and forth between the lines, carrying heavy crates of ammunition on his strong back. Despite the chaos of battle, he never flinched and dropped a crate. Wojtek became so popular that his artillery unit adopted a picture of the bear for their badge and banner (see above).

After the war, the new communist regime in Poland tried to adopt Wojtek for their own. But the Polish war veterans, who now faced arrest if they returned to a Soviet-dominated Poland, resisted.

They found Wojtek a home at the Edinburgh Zoo. Fellow exiles forced by historical circumstances to live out their lives in a faraway land, Wojteks’ former comrades-in-arms continued to embrace their wartime companion, visiting him regularly until his passing in 1963.

Wojtek as a true friend. He withstood dessert heat, artillery fire, all manner of deprivations, and much, much more just to keep his comrades and fellow-exiles happy and free from harm. He also gave the most amazing hugs! That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours' #HistoryHero, another of yesteryear's unforgettable animals.

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Who's your #HistoryHero?

Message us (above) or tell us in the comments (below) and we'll let you know when we feature him or her on the #HistoryHero BLAST.