Wojtek the Bear Memorial

A monument with a fascinating story behind it, secreted away in Redbraes Place in the Bonnington district of N Edinburgh, the Wojtek the Bear Memorial was unveiled on the 14th November 2010, along with a Polish War Memorial, to commemorate a Syrian Brown Bear who had been adopted by a Polish Army unit during World War II. Born in Iran in 1942, the bear cub was bought by Polish soldiers who were making their way to the Middle East from the Soviet Union, to form a fighting force within the Allied armies. Wojtek, whose name meant 'smiling warrior', quickly took on the role of a mascot and travelled with the Poles into Palestine and Egypt. When the Poles were ordered to assist in the invasion of Italy in 1943, the bear had to be enlisted into the 22nd Transport Division (Artillery Supply) of the Polish 2nd Corps as Private Wojtek, so he could accompany them. Wojtek was seen to enjoy beer and cigarettes given to him by soldiers, but also earned the respect of his comrades by carrying ammunition for the guns during the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944. At the end of the War, the bear came to Hutton in the Scottish Borders, along with the soldiers who found it very difficult to return to Poland because the Iron Curtain was descending in Europe. Here Wojtek was popular with the locals but, when his friend and master Lance Corporal Piotr Prendys had to travel to find work, it proved impossible for him to keep Wojtek and the bear was given to Edinburgh Zoo. Here he was regularly visited by Polish soldiers until his death in 1963.

Both the memorial to Wojtek and the adjacent Polish War Memorial (dedicated 2008) were the initiative of local community police officer Simon Daley, intended to promote understanding between the Scottish and Polish communities. Daley obtained a small plot of land at the entrance to Redbraes Community Garden, which was developed around the same time, and secured volunteers, sponsorship and donated materials to build the memorials.

In addition to this memorial, the bear is remembered by plaques in Edinburgh Zoo, the Imperial War Museum in London and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, together with a sculpture in the Sikorski Museum (London) and in Krakow (Poland). There has also been a BBC television documentary and a play Wojtek the Bear, first performed in Edinburgh in 2012. A further memorial was unveiled in Princes Street Gardens in 2015.

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