Film to spot­light bear that served in WWII

Viet Nam News - - LIFE&STYLE -

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.

Old pho­tos show the bulky beast – who grew to be over 1.8 me­tres tall and weighed about 220 kilo­grams – 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 ani- mated movie.

The British-Pol­ish film­mak­ers hope to re­lease the fam­i­lyfriendly A Bear Named Wo­jtek in 2020 on the 75th an­niver­sary of Vic­tory in Europe Day.

But the film’s British pro­ducer, Iain Har­vey, was skep­ti­cal when Scot­tish an­i­ma­tor Iain Gard­ner first ap­proached him.

“To be hon­est I thought, ‘This man has had too many whiskys’,” Har­vey said, be­fore he re­alised that: “For once the magic is real.”

“When you ac­tu­ally find a story that is al­most like a fairy­tale but is real, and doc­u­mented and true, it just opens up so many more emo­tions I think,” he said.

“You know, that hu­man­ity can have magic and that things can hap­pen that you wouldn’t nor­mally think are ra­tio­nal,” he went on.

Not that all the lore is true. Wo­jtek prob­a­bly did not visit the Sphinx in Egypt, as re­counted by some sto­ry­tellers. Nor did the Nazis nec­es­sar­ily know they had a spe­cial an­i­mal en­emy and bom­bard his po­si­tions.

Some­times truth is stranger than fic­tion, how­ever.

Docile Wo­jtek was an en­listed soldier, with his own pay­book, ra­tions, and rank – a sta­tus he needed to sail from Egypt to Italy with his com­rades in arms.

“The port au­thor­ity is be­ing dif­fi­cult about the bear and mon- key,” reads a 1944 en­try in the com­pany’s jour­nal.

“Only after con­sult­ing the British High Com­mand in Cairo does the port au­thor­ity al­low them to board the ship.”

Yes, there was a mon­key too. In fact there were hun­dreds of non-hu­mans milling about dur­ing the war, ac­cord­ing to wartime Pol­ish refugee Krystyna Ivell, who her­self had a chameleon in Pales­tine.

“You have no mother, you have no sis­ters, you have no fa­ther, you’re all alone, you might die, so of course you find some­thing to love,” said the 83-yearold, who put to­gether a Lon­don ex­hi­bi­tion and com­piled a book: Wo­jtek Al­bum, with pho­tos and anec­dotes about the bear.

“Stray dogs. Foxes. Horses. You name it. Ev­ery­body wanted a pet... I re­mem­ber a bloke who had a fer­ret, and used to have it un­der his khaki shirt and the head would ap­pear,” she said.

What was spe­cial about Wo­jtek, ac­cord­ing to Nareb­ski, was that he seemed to be­lieve he was hu­man.

“Be­cause he was brought up from a cub among peo­ple, he ac­quired hu­man traits... In a bear’s body there was a Pol­ish soul,” said Nareb­ski, who was known as “Lit­tle Wo­jtek” and the bear as “Big Wo­jtek.”

He re­called an oc­ca­sion in Italy, along the Adri­atic Sea, when the hairy Cor­po­ral Wo­jtek man­aged to break away from the men and make a bee­line for the wa­ter, giv­ing beach­go­ers a fright.

“Well he didn’t pay them any at­ten­tion... it was hot and he swam around a bit, shook him­self off, and then came right back.”

This docil­ity is what Gard­ner, the an­i­ma­tor, finds in­ter­est­ing about the im­agery of a bear in a hu­man con­flict.

“The most com­mon kind of cul­tural shared im­age that we have of a bear is that it’s a sav­age an­i­mal. You know, it’s a beast,” Gard­ner said.

“And yet you put it in the con­text of the Sec­ond World War and you have to ask, ‘Who are the an­i­mals?’“

After the war, Wo­jtek ended up at Ed­in­burgh Zoo in Scot­land, where he died at the age of 21 in 1963.

At the time, the BBC an­nounced “with re­gret the death of a fa­mous Pol­ish soldier”. — AFP

Bear ne­ces­si­ties: 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. — AFP Photo

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