I’ve always said that drinking beer can be an educative experience. I’ve just found out about Wojtek the anti-Nazi soldier-bear, from a the label of a bottle of beer…
“He liked a cigarette, he liked a bottle of beer. He even drank his bottle of beer like any man.”
On the label of the (very nice) beer named after him, it says “Wojtek was a magnificent 500lb Syrian bear who served in WW2 alongside a unit of Polish soldiers. Believing he was a man, Wojtek shared their beer, their cigarettes and, eventually, their fate.”
Fascinating stuff, so I set about discovering more. There’s actually a whole lot of material about Wotjtek out there, including some films on Youtube, but my favourite is a somewhat demotic Yank site that names him “Badass of the Week” and concludes thus:
“The idea of a fucking alcoholic Nazi-fighting bear is so awesome that you’d think it was something out of a bizarre cartoon or a Sci-Fi Channel Original Movie. It’s the sort of shit that, even with all of the historical evidence, seems too totally awesome to be true. The bear was a hero of World War II, and there are statues of him and plaques memorializing his brave service in Poland, Edinburgh, the Imperial War Museum in London, and the Canadian War Museum. Unbelieveable.”
Amongst his many exploits, Wojtek apparently unmasked and captured a Nazi spy, and carried ammo to the front at the great battle of Monte Cassino. Hence the official Polish army insignia, below:
Even allowing for a considerable amount of anthropomorphic exaggeration, Wojtek’s career as a Private (yes: the Poles enlisted him to get round an Allied army ban on pets) sounds pretty impressive.
The full story of Wojtek concludes with him ending his days in Edinburgh Zoo, where his old Polish comrades would often visit him with cigarettes and beer, and sometimes even jump into the enclosure for a wrestle – just for old times sake. So Wojtek’s story has a reasonably happy ending. I’d feared the worst, reading on the beer label that he shared everything with his comrades, including “eventually, their fate.” So perhaps beer bottles aren’t always the most reliable source of historical information. But – you must admit – it’s a great and strangely moving story, isn’t it?
P.S: I’ve now realised what the beer label means by “he shared … eventually, there fate.” Here’s the Beartown Brewery’s explanation, from its website: “[Wojtek] gave valuable hope and reassurance to his homeless Polish friends during a time of madness, fear and hostility. Poignantly at the end of the war, Wojtek’s fate was to mirror that of his beloved soldiers. Many of the Poles feared to return to their country due to Stalin’s political domination of the region. While Wojtek’s fate was to be confined behind another form of iron curtain at Edinburgh Zoo.”