Berwickshire author Aileen Orr has just returned from Poland where she was invited to attend a commemorative service for the Battle of Monte Cassino.
Aileen has played a key role in ensuring that the story of Polish troops during the Second World War who adopted a Syrian brown bear cub they called Wojtek has not been forgotten.
The troops enlisted Wojtek as a regular soldier so he could travel with them from the port of Alexandria to Italy where he helped the soldiers carry ammunition during the Battle of Monte Cassino. After the war Wojtek travelled with them when they came to Berwickshire, staying at Winfield on Sunwick Farm near Paxton - the farm of Aileen’s husband’s family and where she still lives.
Since writing ‘Wojtek the Bear: Polish War Hero’ Aileen has received over 120,000 letters from fans across the world. The proceeds from the book helped Aileen pay for a sculpture of Wojtek which was erected in Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, in 2016.
Aware of the story of Wojtek and having seen him in Edinburgh Zoo when she was a child, when Aileen decided to write a book about him she also wanted to tell the story of the Polish troops and their contribution to the war effort and the sacrifices they made both during and after the war, something that has endeared her to many Polish people.
“Wojtek’s story was personally important for me, but I could only hope it would speak to other people,” said Aileen.
Until publication of Aileen’s book on Woytek, many Polish people had never heard of Wojtek and the tale won both Aileen and Wojtek many Polish fans and something of a celebrity in the country.
After returning from Poland, Aileen said: “I was very privileged to meet veterans of that time including Yonana who had been a nurse in the Warsaw Uprising. “Although 96, her stories of courage and sacrifice were almost beyond comprehension.
“A beautiful and inspiring lady who so appreciated a Scottish person would say nice things about Poland. It seemed bizarre to me, but the pain of WW2 still lingers with those who endured it, and its aftermath.
“The story of Wojtek the bear, who lived on our farm at Sunwick is now talked of all around the world, but it has always been those Poles who gave their lives for us which, to me, has been the most remarkable story.
“This was one of the most inspirational ladies I’ve ever met. Her story was one of thousands never told. The one medal she wore came from London and she had to pay £2.50 to receive it.
“Shame on everyone who forgets the sacrifice so many gave in that time.”
After the Monte Cassino commemorations Mrs Orr was invited to the Szkila Podstrawawa nr 2 (school)in Polanica-Zdroj to celebrate their 60th anniversary.
She said: “We had a fun day which included me presenting prizes and being truly embarrassed at my pathetic attempt to kick a rugby ball.
“However, the hospitality I received was fantastic.
“They had been using my book, in Polish and in English, to create art, drama and history events which were exemplary.
“The school was so nurturing and the head teacher Mr Klonowski was an inspiration. Polanica is the most beautiful place, it has spectacular countryside and is litter free.
“The food is amazing too, and I did pick up the recipe of the best cheesecake in the world!”
“But the most important part of my visit was to talk about the story of Wojtek and how his story has inspired so many Polish children to talk about something which had been erased from their past history, to enjoy this adventure but to reflect on how many very young people fought and died not just for Poland, but for us all.
“To also hear Yoanna tell her stories and to appreciate what she and her friends did to try and survive the horrors of war. I am the patron of the Polish Wojtek “I am a frequent visitor to Poland, but each visit holds new adventures with people who only in the past few years have been able to tell their stories and share their country with me, which I regard as an honour and privilege.”
After the Second World War many of the Polish troops based in Berwickshire stayed here and links between the county and Poland have remained strong. Duns is twinned with the Polish town of Zagan and it is clear that the story of Wojtek strengthens these links.
Two years ago Zagan in Poland gifted a statue of Wojtek, the soldier bear to the people of Duns and the Mayor of Zagan travelled over to Duns for the unveiling ceremony. A party from Italy were also present, a similar Wojtek statue also erected near Monte Cassino.