Wojtek, the Bear of Monte Cassino

Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Unit insignia of the Twenty-Second Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Cor
Unit insignia of the Twenty-Second Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Cor
Mrs. Leonida Kroczak, Stanislaw’s wife, with Wojtek in Scotland
Clipping from a 1948 issue of Edinburgh’s Evening Dispatch

The Hoover Institution Archives has acquired the wartime memoirs of Stanislaw Kroczak, an officer with the Twenty-Second Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps. In his memoirs Kroczak recalls his childhood in a village south of the city of Lwow (now Lviv), his fight against invading German and Soviet forces in September 1939, and his subsequent imprisonment and hard labor in the north of Russia. He goes on to detail his release from the GULAG in the summer of 1941, when the Soviets joined the Allies against the Germans, and his life in the newly formed Polish units evacuated from the USSR via the Middle East to fight the Germans in Italy. Rich in detail, thoughtful analysis, and reflection, the Kroczak memoirs are a valuable addition to Hoover’s renowned archives on modern Polish history and the Soviet GULAG.

One charming part of the memoir concerns one of the best-known and celebrated animal mascots of the war, Wojtek the bear. Wojtek (pronounced “Voytek” and meaning Little Albert in Polish) was an orphaned brown bear cub adopted by the Twenty-Second Company as the Polish Corps was passing through the mountains of Iran on its westward trek to join the Allied war effort in the Mediterranean theater. Nearly fully grown by the time the troops had been transported from Alexandria to Taranto, Wojtek and his company helped liberate Italy. Completely tame and with a friendly disposition, the five-hundred-pound bear drank beer, ate cigarettes, and wrestled with his human companions. Wojtek also rode in the cab of an ammunition truck, giving rise to stories that the beloved bear actually drove it on occasion and that he carried boxes of artillery shells in his paws! Kroczak’s memoir puts those stories to rest but does note the bear’s role in helping maintain the troops’ high morale during the bloody campaign up the mountainous Italian peninsula, culminating in the capture of Monte Cassino by the Poles on May 18, 1944. After the war, Wojtek shared the lot of most of his Polish friends who chose not to return to their Soviet-dominated homeland. Many of them settled in Scotland, and Wojtek was placed in the Edinburgh Zoo, frequently visited by his old army buddies, journalists, and crowds of admiring fans. Wojtek died in Edinburgh in 1963, but his fame lives on in several Polish and English children’s books, a BBC film documentary, and commemorative plaques in the Edinburgh Zoo, Imperial War Museum in London, and the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. His story is now also documented in the Hoover Archives.

Maciej Siekierski, Senior Curator siekierski [at] stanford [dot] edu