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Soldier Bear    by Bibi Dumon Tak & Philip Hopman order for
Soldier Bear
by Bibi Dumon Tak
Order:  USA  Can
Eerdmans, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Bibi Dumon Tak's Soldier Bear is based on true events of World War II, beginning in 1939 when the Germans and Russians invaded Poland, each declaring their half. The author takes readers on a journey with two Polish soldiers, Peter and Stanislav, who were separated for two years, one in a Russian prison and the other in a German compound. They were reunited after escaping, and promised to never separate again.

Stanislav and Peter travelled with thousands of soldiers into Iran, the only border they could safely cross to escape from the Russians. Amidst the chaos of war, five Polish soldiers in Iran spotted a boy dragging a bag. When they looked inside, they saw two beady-black eyes. It was love at first sight, as the soldiers traded a few trinkets for the orphaned Siberian cub, whom they named Voytek (Polish for small warrior). Peter, Stanislav, and other Polish soldiers joined the British military against the Germans. Voytek went along as a mascot and more. Several Commanding Officers questioned the presence of the bear. But Voytek melted their hearts and was officially inducted as Private Voytek of the 22nd Company of the 2nd Polish Corps.

But Voytek also did his duty, as when he lined up between Peter and Stanislav 'in a long chain of soldiers and trucks' to pass heavy ammunition. Stanislav comments to Peter: 'I can accept him coming with us, but we can't let him carry this stuff. If he drops anything, he'll blow us sky high.' When Voytek wasn't helping, he sat at the top of his favorite tree, staring at the 'bomb-scarred landscape for hours.' When the soldiers celebrated, Voytek joined in, loving to eat lit cigarettes and drink beer. If the cigarette was not lit, the growing bear (over six feet tall) would nudge a soldier for a light!

There are many humorous, dangerous events for the soldiers and the bear. My favorite among favorites is when Voytek climbed, then slid down a crane 'as though it was a playground slide'; the bear was obviously having a wonderful time. Voytek did handstand after handstand, and the more the soldiers applauded, the more daring he became. When a monkey named Kaska (who appears in one of the black and white photos in the book) taunted Voytek by throwing stones at the bear, Voytek would sit and cover his eyes with his paws. He did this whenever he encountered a sticky situation, including entering a women's military unit. When the shocked women hollered at Voytek, he covered his eyes. And, of course, their hearts melted.

The Afterword tells us the bear was born in January 1942 in the mountains of Iran. He died on December 2, 1963, in the Edinburgh Zoo. Private Voytek became the world's most famous bear; he earned his own insignia imprinted on trucks, plus on Polish soldiers' berets - a sketch of a bear holding an artillery/bomb. His chapter-book was first published in Amsterdam, and translated into English by Laura Watkinson. The three photos in the book are courtesy of The Polish Institute and Sikorski Museum, London. The humorous antics and serious actions of Private Voytek and his Polish caretakers are endearing against the background, reality and ruins of war. This wondrous story touched, tugged, and played emotional notes in Moja Polska Serce (my Polish heart)!

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