Memorial to Wojtek the soldier bear is unveiled

Crowds gathered in Duns Market Square for the unveiling of a statue of Wojtek the solider bear, a gift from twin town of Zagan in Poland.
Crowds gathered in Duns Market Square for the unveiling of a statue of Wojtek the solider bear, a gift from twin town of Zagan in Poland.

For over half a century, the legend of Wojtek the soldier bear has been told, and now there is a permanent memorial to him in Duns Market Square.

Crowds gathered in the centre of Duns on Sunday, local residents, Polish and Italian visitors, to see the unveiling of the statue of Wojtek, gifted to Duns by its Polish twin town of Zagan.

Everyone wanted to get their first sighting of the soldier bear.

Everyone wanted to get their first sighting of the soldier bear.

Prior to the unveiling ceremony, the Polish Consul General, Dariusz Adler, laid a wreath at the Polish war memorial in Duns Park.

At the town square, Duns Community Council chairman Andrew Mitchell thanked the people of Zagan for the statue. Others had also played there part in getting the bear statue in situ – Scottish Borders Council for the installation work, Mill Garage for the tender loving care given to the statue when it arrived in Duns, and Hutton Stone who carried out the work on the statue base, he noted.

For those new to the story of the soldier bear, Mr Mitchell gave a brief history of his life. Wojtek was adopted by Polish soldiers as an orphaned cub in Iran who fed him condensed milk from a bottle. As he grew up, he developed a taste for beer and cigarettes.

As the Polish Army prepared to enter the war zone in Italy in 1943, the only way the Polish soldiers could take Wojtek with them was if he was enlisted in the army, so he was given his own paybook rank and serial number.

Everyone wanted to touch the newly unveiled statue of Wojtek the solider bear, a gift from twin town of Zagan in Poland.

Everyone wanted to touch the newly unveiled statue of Wojtek the solider bear, a gift from twin town of Zagan in Poland.

While they were fighting in Monte Cassino, Wojtek helped move crates of shells towards the front line. His heroism is also remembered in Italy where there is a similar statue of the soldier bear and representatives from Monte Casino travelled to Duns for the unveiling ceremony.

One Polish soldier who also fought at Monte Cassino, Leon Gerasik, settled in Duns after the war and was a guest of honour at Sunday’s ceremony.

After the war, the Polish soldiers arrived in Winfield, near Paxton, with Wojtek still beside them and when many of them eventually went back home, the bear spent the rest of his life in Edinburgh Zoo.

Lady McEwen, chair of the twinning association, welcomed the guests, and once the Depute Mayor of Zagan, Magdalena Wiadomska-Lazewska, had carried out the unveiling, the statue was blessed by a Polish priest from Peebles, Father Wojciech Rybica.

Polish singers in national costume performed for the crowds.

Polish singers in national costume performed for the crowds.

The ceremony concluded with a song from a group of Polish singers in colourful national costume.

Andrew Mitchell and  Polish veteranLeon Gerasik beside Wojtek.

Andrew Mitchell and Polish veteranLeon Gerasik beside Wojtek.

The Depute Mayor of Zagan, Magdalena Wiadomska-Lazewska, unveiled the statue.

The Depute Mayor of Zagan, Magdalena Wiadomska-Lazewska, unveiled the statue.

Father Wojciech Rybica offers a blessing of the soldier bear statue.

Father Wojciech Rybica offers a blessing of the soldier bear statue.