In the sixth grade, I remember learning about World War II, and specifically about how overmatched the Polish people were against the mammoth German war machine. We were told that in some battles the Poles had no choice but to send out warriors on horseback armed with sticks to fight off the invading German tanks. That’s right horses and sticks against tanks. A lot of the children in the class laughed at the silly Poles and their feeble defense. I, however, stood up for my fellow Poles, and in fact was proud that we’d continue to defend ourselves against seemingly impossible odds.
The vast majority of the class argued that the Poles should have laid down their weapons and gotten off their horses once they saw tanks rolling through the countryside. I argued that the Nazis were such an evil force that the Poles should be commended for fighting them, even though it was apparent to both sides that the Poles would be slaughtered. I argued that the slaughter would happen no matter what so the only course of action was to fight and keep fighting until your last breath. Having had two grandparents survive concentration camps, I knew that there was nothing to gain by surrendering. As my friends and readers know, I lean quite heavily towards pacifism, so to admit violence is justified is quite a bold statement on my part.
Growing up as a Polish-American (born in the U.S.A., but both my parents were born in Poland, in fact I’m the first American in my direct family), I heard a near infinite list of Polish jokes. It didn’t really bother me then, and still doesn’t, as I understood they were just jokes and also knew they didn’t really have any foundations in truth. In other words, if the joke was good I’d usually laugh but if anyone thought the jokes were actually representative of the Polish people I’d quickly set them straight. That brings me to the whole point of today’s post, which is to bring your attention to a war story I remember hearing about before but not fully researching.
During World War II, a contingent of Polish soldiers were stationed in Iran. It was there that the soldiers found a small bear cub wandering around by himself. The soldiers adopted the bear and called him Wojtek. They quickly grew very fond of Wojtek, who would drink milk from a vodka bottle [us Poles love our vodka ]. As he grew up Wojtek replaced the milk with bottles of beer and lit cigarettes. In fact, Wojtek enjoyed beer so much that once he finished a brew, he’d bring the empty bottle up to his eye and look inside to make sure it was empty before tossing it aside [here's a link to a Polish newscast on youtube telling this story]. The soldiers became so attached to the bear that he went with them from battle to battle and was officially drafted into the Polish army!
That’s right. The Polish army had a real, living and breathing bear fighting for them. In fact, during the battle of Monte Cassino, a crucial battle in the push for Rome, Wojtek carried crates of ammo to the front-lines, without dropping a single box. Here’s the real lesson of the day, any country crazy enough to fight tanks with men on horseback armed with sticks and crazy enough to officially enlist a bear into its military is probably not a country you should be invading. Oh, and when these Poles weren’t fighting off Nazis they’d spend their downtime, drinking, smoking, and wrestling with Wojtek the bear! Robert Brockway raises a great point about this fact:
Who was more badass, the Nazi-fighting bear who wrestled full platoons of trained soldiers, or the men who routinely got body-slammed by him for shits ‘n giggles?
Good question Robert. I say they’re equally badass.
If all that wasn’t enough, Wojtek the bear also learned how to work the troop’s showers and would often go in to cool off. The bear would shower so often that the soldiers had to lock the shower to prevent Wojtek from using up all of the water! Still, the bear would continue trying to use the showers and one day found the door unlocked. Upon entering the showers, the bear found an Arab spy inside, who upon seeing the bear immediately surrendered and gave up the location of his fellow soldiers. Wojtek was a legitimate war hero and surely deserves a memorial in his honor.
After the war (of course the bear’s side won), Wojtek settled in an Edinburgh zoo, and many of his fellow soldiers settled in around him. His soldier friends would visit Wojtek at the zoo, often bringing him beer and smokes, and even sometimes hopping into his den for a quick tussle with the bear.
Anyway, I’m wicked proud to be Polish-American and this story just makes me even prouder. Now, anyone got a good bear joke?
Note, it is my understanding that all the photos used above are in the public domain. If you are the copyright holder of any of the above photos, or have reason to believe they are copyrighted, please let me know.