FIVE visitors from Zagan in Poland visited Duns last week as part of the twinning agreement between the two towns.
The twinning agreement was made in 1994, chiefly because the colours and traditions of the two tank regiments under General Maczek, who were stationed here during the war and whose dead are remembered at the Polish War Memorial in Duns Park, were lodged in Zagan after the fall of the Iron Curtain.
There have been previous visits in both directions - youth orchestra, football team, a delegation to view Scottish local government and the Borders mills, etc. However, this was a visit with a difference. It was, one might say, a pilgrimage, walking in the footsteps of Wojtek the bear.
Until about three years ago nobody in Zagan seemed to know anything about the bear who lived at Winfield from October 1946 to November 1947 after he had travelled with the Polish troops from Persia to Palestine and Egypt and carried shells at the Battle of Monte Cassino.
This was because the Soviets had had an influence on the recounting of history and they maintained (and still do) that the war started in 1941 - ‘forgetting’ that they invaded Poland in 1939, a fortnight after Hitler.
Wojtek was a baby bear when acquired by the Polish Army and travelled with the troops growing bigger all the time, even ‘enlisting’ as a soldier which allowed him a ration of beer, which he loved, and cigarettes which he would eat.
At the end of the war the troops came to Britain, some of them with Wojtek to Winfield Camp where he was until November 1947 when, as the soldiers had to disperse into civilian life, he went to Edinburgh Zoo where he lived until 1963.
The purpose of the visitors from Zagan was to see the places where Wojtek was, namely Winfield and its environs and the zoo. They also wanted to hear from people who had known him, or those who remembered the stories of those who had.
It is only in the last three years or so that Wojtek’s story has been known in Zagan but they have taken him to their hearts. They have produced a cartoon book (in Polish and English) about him. They have him as the focus in their military corps in the school with his image on their badges and they give talks in schools.
He is a wonderful vehicle not only for telling the true story of the war but also as a symbol of friendship between man and man and man and animals.
The party visited Mr Karolewski in Hutton. He is the last surviving Polish soldier in Berwickshire and he guided them round Winfield and showed them the airfield where Wojtek took his main exercise.
This was followed by lunch at the Honey Farm. There was then a visit to Berwick followed by supper at the White Swan in Duns.
The next day the party visited Dr Trafas, the Polish Consul General in Edinburgh, and then had lunch with Karen Gladyn-Gryff who accompanied them to the zoo. Karen had visited Wojtek there as a small girl. In the evening they enjoyed fish and chips from the Reivers Fish Bar which they consumed at the Stable Cottage where they were staying.
The next day Marek Slusarski visited Scottish Borders Council while the remaining members had lunch at the Siamese Kitchen in Duns and visited Greenlaw Primary School to talk about Wojtek.
Flowers were laid at the Polish War Memorial in Duns Park while Shonagh Duncan played the pipes. This was followed by a reception at the Stable Cottage with members of the Twinning Association and guests and various presentations took place.
On the final day the visitors paid a visit to the Polish Club in Edinburgh where they met Raymond Raczkowski Ross who wrote the play about Wojtek which was shown at the Edinburgh Festival. They then went to the Redbraes-Pilrig area to see the Wojtek memorial before lunch was enjoyed at the Crammond Inn before their flight home to Poland.
Throughout the visit the Polish flag which had belonged to Vadek (Wladislaw Hrtyneczco) flew from the council offices in Duns. There was also a wonderful Polish window in the BAVS shop showing Wojtek and the twinning crest and agreement, along with pictures of the Polish soldiers in Duns in 1943 when the plaque on the council offices was unveiled.