Legend of the bear who bore arms

A BO'NESS school is the first in Scotland to twin with Poland in a unique history project.

It centres on the ''Soldier Bear'', a 6ft tall Syrian bear, who played a major role in helping the troops in the Second World War and who died of old age in Edinburgh Zoo.

The man behind the twinning is Deanburn Primary teacher Richard Antolak, who as a child often visited the bear, Wojtek (prounounded Voytek), at the zoo.

Thanks to his Polish descent, Richard could capture the animal's attention by speaking to him in Polish.

This week Richard Lucas and Michaelina Ziemba, from Krakow in Poland, visited Deanburn to tell children the story of the soldier bear.

Wojtek had been rescued as a weeks-old cub after his mum died, and ended up with a troop of Polish soldiers, who looked after him.

When Polish forces were deployed to Europe, the only way to take the bear with them was to "enlist" him, so he was given a name, rank and number and took part in the Italian campaign. The giant bear would ride in the front seat of troop cars, and watched as the troops struggled to carry heavy loads. One day the bear stood on his hind legs and held out his paws to help carry equipment – and a legend was born.

Wojtek was also famed for marching with the soldiers on his back legs.

Mr Antolak said: ''We've started an exciting new project linked with a primary school in Krakow, Poland and centred on the soldier bear.

''Eventually we hope to link up schools in the countries with which Wojtek is associated - Iran, Poland, Lebanon, Egypt, Italy, and Scotland.''

The Polish visitors brought paintings of Wojtek with them from the Krakow school to share with Deanburn. Mr Antolak added: ''The children were really interested and will compile lists of things the school can do as part of this project.''