Wojtek can you hear me?
By Anne Kaczanowski
Wojtek can you hear me?
Wojtek do you still remember me?
Wojtek czy pamietasz? Wojtek czy jeszcze pamietasz mnie?
The penetrating sound of friends transcend the pages of time
And the bear turns his ear as the bell of the universe chimes
He remembers as though it was yesterday as he looks back
He was a little brown bear tightly held by a child in a sack
The waves of the Caspian brought to Persia many broken souls
A cascade of hopeful, starving and helpless deported Poles
They were housed in civilian camps with clothes and a meal
And Persia allowed them many gifts just to help them heal
One day a Polish soldier appeared with a young girl he can’t forget
He traded the boy a handful of coins and bought the girl a pet
She took her gift into a civilian camp but quickly saw her error
This was not the place to raise this mischievous, little bear
After three months he was given to a group of Polish army men
With blessings that he could become their mascot in a pen
The young soldiers accepted their gift with excitement of a boy
They fed and hugged the little bear and filled his heart with joy
They nursed him from a vodka bottle filled with sweet milk
And cuddled him in their sleeping bags like a tiny piece of silk
They taught him how to play and showered him with love
And he believed that he had been given a family from above
He was no different than the soldiers who took him in
They had both been abandoned in a world full of sin
The soldiers had suffered a lot and the bear gave them hope
And together they were bound like a tightly twisted rope
They taught him how to smoke and how to drink their beer
And when he wrestled them to the ground, everyone would cheer
The rays of the Middle East sun would become a soldier’s wrath
But a hole was dug in sand with water so the bear could have a bath
He was a smiling little warrior and from the wild easy to tame
And so the soldiers decided that Wojtek should be his name.
They taught him to speak Polish and showed him that they cared
And recognized him as a Polish spirit wrapped in the body of a bear.
Wojtek never thought of himself as anything other than a man
He lived his life in unison under a highly orchestrated plan
They battled the Mediterranean but their greatest challenge lay ahead
But Wojtek was refused the ship to Italy and their hearts filled with dread
Someone said he was a bear and only soldiers could be on the ship
So they enlisted him as a Private so he could make the trip
So now he had a number, was a soldier in every sense of the word
And nobody in the 22nd Transport thought this was absurd
He continued to boost the morale of soldiers fighting to death
And became legend for many who had taken their last breath
He watched the ammunition being carried by exhausted men
It was just as easy for him to do the same job as a team of ten
So he proudly carried the boxes to show his soldiers that he could
And they cheered and bestowed their pride as every soldier should
The battle had been fought for so long on this shattered, bloody hill
But this time it would take more than just courage and skill
The thirst for freedom was carried in every soldier’s boot
And Wojtek did everything but pick up a gun and shoot
He was a story to many who heard about the things he had done
He enlightened and uplifted the soldier’s spirits with Polish fun
The battle raged and the smoke of thunderous canons filled the air
And alongside the Polish soldiers fought this majestic bear
He become the mascot of the regiment that he served so well
And their emblem became Wojtek carrying the bloody shell
And when the war was over the soldiers had to rebuild their lives
But where do you put a bear that was strong enough to survive?
They took him to Scotland where many soldiers had decided to go to
And finally realized that Wojtek’s best home would be Edinburgh Zoo
Wojtek had come on a long journey and for a time been free
Walking on the grounds with soldiers and enjoying the shade of a tree.
It broke every soldier’s heart to leave their brother behind the cage
He was one of them, but now the reality of life was on a new stage
So the Polish soldiers who stayed, visited him every chance they had
And shared a cigarette as they talked of good times and bad
The dimensions of time take Wojtek back to where he is today
But if you speak Polish ……he can hear what you say
Wojtek czy pamietasz ? Wojtek czy pamietasz mnie?
Wojtek do you remember ? Wojtek do you still remember me?
And Wojtek turns his head and looks the soldier square in the eye
And tears stream down the cheeks of both in a silent, bonded cry
Tak braciszku pamiętam, tak braciszku jeszcze cię pamiętam
Yes my brother I remember. Yes my brother I still remember you.
Wojtek we will all remember you.
We will never forget you.
hania kaczanowska 2015
Wojtek the Soldier Bear was a real bear who brought smiles and hope to World War II Polish refugees. The Poles who had adopted a tiny brown bear in Iran in 1942 as their pet were soldiers and civilians, among them young girls and boys who had experienced some of the war’s greatest tragedies. Like the bear who became their charge and companion, many of them lost their parents and other loved ones. Wojtek was also a soldier in the so-called Anders’ Army composed of former Polish prisoners in the Soviet Gulag who were America’s and Britain’s allies in the war against Nazi Germany. Wojciech Narębski, who served in the 22nd Artillery Transport Company of the Anders’ Army, called Wojtek an “orphan among orphans.”1
After being held as prisoners in Russia, where many of their family members and friends were murdered by Soviet Communists or died as slave laborers, about 120,000 Polish refugees, both soldiers and civilians, were evacuated to what was then known as Persia. They were finally free, rebuilding their lives and thinking about their future. At that time they still thought they could return to Poland after the war. Some may have been falling in love. One of the Polish soldiers, Lieutenant Anatol Tarnowiecki, reportedly bought the young cub from a Kurdish boy to please a Polish refugee girl, eighteen-year-old Irena Bokiewicz who felt sorry for the motherless bear and wanted to take care of him.
Wojtek’s first home was a Polish refugee camp for civilians established near Tehran where Irena and others fed him milk from an old vodka bottle. Wojtek brought joy to many who came in contact with him, but sadly not all the Polish children who had escaped from Russia could enjoy playing with the young bear. Hundreds still died in Iran from illnesses and exhaustion after their captivity. But for those lucky ones who survived, Wojtek reminded them that there was a different side to life than what happened to them in communist Russia.
When the bear became too big for the civilian refugees to handle, the soldiers took him to be among them in their military camp. They gave him a Polish boy’s name Wojtek— which translates a happy little warrior. One of many unusual details in Wojtek’s biography is that he was eventually enlisted with the rank of private in the Polish Army which later fought against the Germans in North Africa and Italy. There was a practical reason for his enlistment. As a soldier, Wojtek could receive food rations and be transported on a ship since military regulations did not allow keeping animals as pets. Wojtek lived with the Polish soldiers, learned how to salute when greeted, wrestled with his caretakers, drank beer—his favorite beverage—smoked cigarettes and tried to do everything the soldiers did, including carrying crates with ammunition during the battle of Monte Cassino in Italy. He was subsequently promoted to corporal.
Soon, however, another tragedy awaited the refugees. At the end of the war, they were betrayed by the leaders of the world’s two greatest democracies. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed with Stalin at the 1945 Yalta Conference that eastern Poland, where many of the soldiers and civilians lived before the war, be given to communist Russia. Most of the Polish soldiers and their families had no homes to return to. Neither did Wojtek since Poland, which lost its independence to communism and Soviet domination, was the country of his caretakers. Soldiers of the Polish Army under the command of General Władysław Anders fought against Hitler’s armies and were on the winning side of World War II, but in the end most of them became stateless refugees. In what was Poland after the war, they would face reprisals from the communist regime established with the help of the Soviet Union. Some of those who had returned were arrested, tortured and executed. Most chose to live in freedom in Great Britain or emigrated to other Western countries.
Wojtek was given to the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland where he was often visited by former Polish soldiers. They threw him cigarettes, which he ate because there was no one to light them for him. He died in December 1963, at the age of 21.
The playful and mischievous Soldier Bear gave hope to Polish refugees after their incredible suffering in Soviet Russia. This was especially important to this group of exiles since they had to continue with their lives largely forgotten by the Western world, finding comfort only in each other, their families and, for many, in their religious faith. At the time of their evacuation to Iran, the governments of the United States and Great Britain did not want the world to know about the Polish refugees in order not to offend their military ally, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. American propaganda lied about them in wartime Voice of America shortwave radio broadcasts and in press releases to American media. U.S. officials did not want them to talk about the Soviet Union and kept them away from journalists.2 Soviet propaganda branded them as enemies of socialism, reactionaries and even as fascists. For many decades these refugees became a “group lost in history.” Only now, the story of the Polish Army of former Gulag prisoners, Polish refugees from Russia, and Wojtek the Soldier Bear is getting somewhat wider attention and recognition. It was long overdue.
Although not widely known beyond the community of Polish exiles, Wojtek the Soldier Bear became an inspiration to many of them and their descendants. Anne Kaczanowski (Hania Kaczanowska) is one of the children of World War II refugees. A poet and an artist who lives in Edmonton, Alberta in Canada, she is the daughter of a former Gulag prisoner and Polish Army soldier Kazimierz Kaczanowski. Her mother Maria Dobrzańska was a Polish slave laborer in Nazi Germany. Her parents met and married in Canada shortly after the war.
Anne Kaczanowski’s poem, “Wojtek can you hear me?” is posted in Silenced Refugees with permission from the author. She wrote her poem in remembrance of her father who died in Canada in 1988, a year before before Poland was freed from over 40 years of Soviet-imposed communism. He never saw again his homeland or his family left behind the Iron Curtain.
Photo of Kazimierz Kaczanowski in Polish Army uniform courtesy of Anne Kaczanowski.
Drawing courtesy of Anne Kaczanowski.
Imperial War Museum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
- Wojciech Oleksiak, “One Photo One Story: Wojtek the Soldier Bear,” Culture.pl, January 22, 2015, https://culture.pl/en/article/one-photo-one-story-wojtek-the-soldier-bear.
- Ted Lipien, “Polish refugee woman as seen in American propaganda,” Silenced Refugees, January 13, 2019, http://www.silencedrefugees.com/story-of-a-polish-refugee-woman-from-russia/