Polish war veteran behind Wojtek tale dies at 87

Augustyn (Kay) Karolewki recounting his Wojtek stories to the BBC.
Augustyn (Kay) Karolewki recounting his Wojtek stories to the BBC.
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ONE of the men who shared a camp with Berwickshire’s famous soldier bear Wojtek has died. He was 87.

Hutton’s Augustyn (Kay) Karolewski was only a teenager when war broke out in 1939 and was still only a young man by the time he arrived at Winfield Camp from France to join the Polish troops.

Once peace was declared, many of the men travelled back to their homeland but Kay – a nickname given to him by Scots who quickly discovered the only English word he knew when arriving in Britain was ‘OK’ – opted to stay in Berwickshire and make a home for himself after the Polish camp had been dismantled.

He married a local girl, Betty, and the couple had four children – two boys and two girls who then went on to have their own children.

When interest in Wojtek was ignited a few years ago, Kay was the first port of call for many people interesting in finding out more about the fascinating bear and his equally fascinating story.

Even though he found the attention he received from journalists, authors and film makers rather baffling, he was a great asset to those wanting to piece together Wojtek’s journey from the mountains of Iran to rural Berwickshire.

One of those who worked particularly closely with Kay and counted him as a great friend was Aileen Orr, author of ‘Wojtek The Bear: Polish War Hero’.

Kay is quoted in the book, published earlier this year, as saying: “If you had told me 60 years ago I would still be living in Scotland now I would have thought you were mad.

“I would never have believed you. In my wildest dreams it never crossed my mind.”

Poland’s loss was most definitely Berwickshire’s gain.

Before his death on Monday, Kay led a happy and successful life in Scotland.

He was well respected both for his hard work, firstly at Sunwick Farm and latterly in his own business, and for his vast knowledge of the local countryside and fishing on the Tweed.

Aileen dedicated ‘Wojtek The Bear’ to Kay and says a film about Wojtek, which is looking ever more likely after she recently sold the rights to Hollywood-based writer and director Brendan Foley, and a Wojtek memorial statue would be a fitting legacy.

“Kay was a real inspiration for the book,” she explained. “He was a fantastic man and was highly respected by the local community.

“Kay didn’t arrive in Berwickshire with Wojtek, but by the time he arrived here he’d heard about him.

“He still laughed about it years later; he couldn’t quite believe he shared a camp with a bear!

“Kay always said he went one better than Wojtek because unlike Wojtek, Kay made it back to Poland. I asked him once if he considered himself to be Polish or Scottish. Despite building a great life and family in Scotland he said he was most definitely Polish.”

Like Aileen, Kay made his fair share of appearances in the media as the Wojtek train continued to gather steam, his proudest moment being when relatives in Poland spotted him speaking about Wojtek on TV.

“I think he secretly loved the limelight,” Aileen continued. “When his family in Poland saw him he joked that they were bound to see him as he was a superstar over here!

“What was weird for him is that something he experienced 50 years ago was just being talked about.

“He told me he’d seen much devastation during the war, during which he fought in Hungary, Poland and France, but took it all in his stride. He had to really.

“It’s a shame that Kay won’t get to see the Wojtek memorial statue erected next year. We deliberately chose 2013 as it will be the 50th anniversary of Wojtek’s death. But Kay will very much be part of the memorial as he is the book. The book was for him.”

A funeral service will be held at Hutton Church on Monday at 1pm to which all family and friends are invited.