Posts Tagged With: Wojtek the Bear

My first time

Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum

Don’t worry, I’m not going to write about my sexual experiences. Yesterday was my first time as a volunteer at the Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum. I was a bit stressed about it, because I thought I’d have to deal with visitors, but fortunately it was only a “first impression” meeting.

I met with Waclaw (I feel strange using first name of someone whom I’ve just met and who is much older than me, but sometimes English is so… simple), a gentleman who’s “in charge” of volunteers at the Institute. I’ll just mention that majority of them are veterans of WWII and I might be the youngest one there 🙂 Of course we started our meeting with… a cup of tea. There were a few other people sitting there, having tea or a glass of red wine, as it was Waclaw’s brother’s name day – a great start!

After tea, Waclaw gave me another tour, telling new stories about exhibits and Poles. We spent a good few minutes talking about Polish cadets in Middle East, as Waclaw was a cadet in Palestine. He was 10, when his family was forced by Soviets to move from western Ukraine to Kazakhstan. From there, together with General Anders’ Army he arrived in Palestine. He had to lie about his age in order to be accepted – he added himself 3 years. It was in Palestine where Waclaw saw General Sikorski, when he visited the cadets’ camp. Waclaw’s brother was sent on that day to scrub the pots, so he missed the whole show. After the war Waclaw arrived in England where he joined Polish Resettlement Corps, thanks to which he graduated from University and became a civil engineer. He spent 30 years in Africa building roads.

General Sikorski visiting cadets in Middle East

One of the volunteers is Irena (again much older than me, but Madame Irena sounds strange in English, doesn’t it?) who was sent with her family to Siberia. I don’t have to tell you that her journey was a totally different experience from today’s transsiberian railway tours. But she survived and later on served with 2nd Corps in Italy, where she met Woytek the Bear. She told a few funny stories about Woytek. He was bought as a cub, so he grew up hearing Polish all the time. Apparently he could understand when soldiers were swearing and he was showing his discontent by purring. Setting Woytek free was a good idea if soldiers wanted to have a beach just for themselves 🙂 He loved beer and cigarettes which he was eating. In Edinburgh’s zoo he was a kind of celebrity, he had a few veterinaries and an accommodation with heating just for himself 🙂 Irena was asked to tell about Woytek in a few documentaries made for Polish and English TV.

Woytek the Bear

Father of Mr Barbarski – current Chairman of the Institute, was serving under General Maczek (1st Polish Armoured Division) and was present at the capitulation of the entire garrison of Wilhelmshaven in 1945. He also took a part in the patrol sent to liberate the Oberlagen camp, where almost 2000 Polish women, including Home Army soldiers from Warsaw Uprising, were kept. Later on Mr Barbarski’s father married one of the women from that camp. It almost sounds like a movie screenplay, doesn’t it?

Oberlagen liberation

I spent a few hours at the museum listening to stories like these. I can’t wait to go back next week to find out even more!

Categories: Misc | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Little Piece of Poland

The 4th of July was a sad day for Poles. It marked 69th anniversary of Gibraltar catastrophe and death of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Chief Commander of Poland and Prime Minister of Polish Government-in-Exile. I decided to honour General by visiting The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum in London.

The Museum’s main hall

The Museum is a home to many documents, regimental colours, uniforms and personal effects of statesmen, soldiers and ordinary men. The Museum’s building was bought right after the WWII, it’s located at 20 Princes Gate, 5 min walk from all the museums in South Kensington. The Museum is open Tue-Fri from 2 to 4 pm and on the first Saturday of the month 10:30 am – 4 pm.

I don’t think 2 hrs is enough to see everything but there’s a chance you will be the only visitors on a weekday. The whole attention of Mr Romuald Kostrzewa, who was our guide, was focused on me and my brother. And believe me, his knowledge is so vast that he could talk for hrs… Stories I heard made me feel like I moved back in time. The fact that Mr Kostrzewa is a veteran makes the whole experience even more amazing – he joined Pulk Ulanow Karpackich (Carpathian Uhlans) in 1943 (unit this fought in North Africa and in Italy).

One thing I heard saddened me a lot. Apparently “the new immigration” that arrived after 2004, doesn’t visit the museum, doesn’t want to connect with the “old” generation. It’s strange considering the Museum is a little piece of Poland. And I mean the real Poland. When our parents were taught the wrong (or right, according to Soviets) version of history, here in the UK lived people who fought for free Poland and who knew that Soviet “liberation” didn’t mean the end of the war for Poles. We just switched the occupants…

On two floors there are thousands of exhibits and it looks like the Museum could use more space. I’ll show you now a few snapshots.

We’re going to start in Gen. Sikorski’s room.

Gen. Sikorski’s painting and a car flag from General’s car

Desk used by Gen. Sikorski

I’m sure some of you heard a story about Wojtek (Voytek) a  Syrian brown bear that served in 22nd Artillery Supply Company in Polish II Corps. He became a soldier of the Company and was getting his soldier’s pay in… beer and cigarettes. Wojtek went with Polish Army from Iran through North Africa to Italy. After the war Wojtek was given to Edinburgh Zoo. Until his death in 1963 Wojtek smoked cigarettes and always recognized Polish language when visited by Polish soldiers or journalists.

Wojtek the Bear

I think the most valuable exhibits are the regimental colours. You’ll find in the Museum colours of Polish Army from 1939 and also Polish Armed Forces in the West.

Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade’s banner awarded the Military Order of William by Queen Beatrix

The Brigade’s banner was sewed in Warsaw and was delivered from occupied Poland  to the Brigade in England.

I’m sure many of you have seen this picture before.

Polish flag over the Monastery’s ruins

In the early morning of May 18 1944 a reconnaissance group of Polish 12 Podolian Uhlans Regiment raised a Polish flag over the monastery’s ruins.

I’ll just say I was quite moved when taking these pictures.

This pennon was first raised over the ruins

And this is the flag you can see in many history books

I mentioned Mr Kostrzewa told us several stories. One of them was about Polish Model 34 sabre. It was a part of regular equipment in 1939 but this particular sabre was found in a German tank in… North Africa 🙂

Model 34 sabre

I hope a few photos I showed you will make you want to see more. If you have a few spare hours in London, don’t spend £17 on Churchill War Cabinets, go to Sikorski Museum instead.

The Polish Institute receives no financial aid from any official body. It relies on generosity of the public. In the Museum you can get souvenirs and books (they don’t take cards) and all notes and coins are dropped into this shell from ORP Piorun (destroyer “Thunder”).

Please be generous 🙂

Categories: Misc | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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