Animated film to spotlight WWII ‘soldier bear’
WARSAW: During World War II, Wojciech Narebski and his fellow Polish servicemen had to lift crate after heavy metal crate of artillery.
Fortunately for them, one of the soldiers had superhuman strength: Corporal Wojtek, a Syrian brown bear.
“When he saw that we were struggling, he’d want to help... He’d come over, grab a crate and carry it to the truck,” Narebski, now 93, said of his days with Wojtek in the 22nd Artillery Supply Company.
This can be heavy work, even for a bear.
When Wojtek got tired, he would simply stack one crate on top of the other, “which also helped us, because we didn’t have to lift the crate off the ground”, recounted the veteran who spent two and a half years with the friendly giant he considered a brother.
“Of course he got a reward. Honey, marmalade. That was his favourite.”
Wojtek the Bear also liked to drink beer and smoke (or rather eat) cigarettes, take showers, snuggle with his handler at night, and wrestle with his comrades.
When an opponent lost, Wojtek would lick their face in apology.
“Because he was brought up among people, he acquired human traits. In a bear’s body there was a Polish soul,” said Narebski.
Old photos show the bulky beast – who grew to be over 1.8m tall and weighed about 220kg – giving bear hugs, opening his toothy jaw wide for food, and enjoying a day at the beach with smiling soldiers.
The unbelievable true story of the orphaned cub, which was found by Polish troops in Persia and then travelled through Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Italy and Scotland as a morale-booster, is now being turned into an animated movie.
British-Polish filmmakers hope to release the family-friendly A Bear Named Wojtek in 2020 on the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.
The film’s British producer, Iain Harvey, was sceptical when Scottish animator Iain Gardner first approached him.
“To be honest I thought,‘This man has had too many whiskeys’,” Harvey said, before he realised that: “For once the magic is real”.
Wojtek was an enlisted soldier, with his own paybook, rations, and rank – a status he needed to sail from Egypt to Italy with his com- rades in arms.
There were hundreds of non-humans milling about during the war, according to wartime Polish refugee Krystyna Ivell, who herself also had a pet chameleon in Palestine.
“The most common cultural image we have of a bear is that it’s a savage animal,” Gardner said.
“Yet in the context of the Second World War, you have to ask,‘Who are the animals?’.”
Bear-ing heavy loads: Wojtek standing at a truck carrying female soldiers who want to pet him in Palestine in 1943. Later, Wojtek is seen carrying a tree trunk in Castrocaro, Italy on March 22, 1945.