• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

'He'd tell me about when he was lifted by the Gestapo'

IT'S only fitting a play about the true wartime story of a well-travelled and much-loved bear should itself prove to have legs, and demonstrate an equal ability to win friends on its own peregrinations.

That's certainly the case with Wojtek The Bear, written by the man sitting across from me in the large front room of an Edinburgh flat, and recently performed to crowds in Warsaw who gave it as warm a reception as it received on its Scottish premiere in 2012 and its subsequent Fringe run.

The man is Raymond Raszkowski Ross, born to a Polish father and a Scots-Irish mother and raised in West Lothian. Now 60, Ross is a well-known figure on the Scottish arts scene and as well as being a playwright and artistic director of Theatre Objektiv, the company that mounted the production, he is or has been a theatre critic, journalist, lecturer, author, teacher and, for two and a half decades, publisher and editor of Scottish cultural and political magazine Cencrastus.

More than that, he's also a rich source of stories. Some of these are funny, but many are not: over the course of 90 minutes, for instance, I'll learn how his Polish father was tortured by the Gestapo and later sent to Auschwitz, and how another uncle died in a hail of bullets outside a church.

Ross isn't short of political opinions either, his fervent Scottish nationalism having been birthed in his early teens and nurtured through his long friendship with poet, songwriter and folklorist Hamish Henderson.

They shared long days in Henderson's Marchmont flat or in his office at Edinburgh University's School of Scottish Studies, and longer nights in Sandy Bell's pub, a short walk away across the Meadows.

In August, when Henderson's archive was acquired by the university, Ross contributed a chapter to a book about him. In it, he pays tribute to Henderson and describes working on his Collected Poems And Songs ahead of its publication in 2000. He also recalls their first meeting in the Meadow Bar in late 1969, during the planning of the anti-apartheid demonstration which would disrupt that December's Scotland v South Africa rugby match at Murrayfield.

Ross was an under-age drinker in his mid-teens with a taste for politics, Henderson an august war veteran about to turn 50.

"He was just one of these big figures," Ross tells me. "You just knew you'd met somebody, even if at that age you didn't quite know who he was or what he was about. But you knew he wasn't just an academic or just an intellectual. He had a force about him, I suppose, as well as a charisma. I was good friends with Hamish for many years. We didn't always agree politically, though. He was more of a devolutionist than a Nationalist."

But anyway, back to Wojtek. If you haven't heard of the Syrian brown bear, he died in Edinburgh Zoo in 1963. His fame, however, rests on his war service with an artillery company of the Polish II Corps, which fought alongside the Allies. Wojtek was born in Iran (probably) and it was there he first met his future comrades-in-arms, who fed him condensed milk from a vodka bottle, adopted him as their mascot and enlisted him into the Corps with the rank of corporal.

Wojtek accompanied them from Iran to Egypt via Iraq, Syria and Palestine and then on the long, bloody slog up the spine of Italy. At the pivotal, four-month long Battle of Monte Cassino, he is said to have carried artillery shells for the forward batteries. When the Polish forces were demobilised after the war, many were sent to camps in Scotland. Wojtek went with them, which is how he ended up in Edinburgh Zoo.

Ross's play is a two-hander about the bear and the Polish soldier who cared for him. Dreamlike and performed to a live violin score, it tells Wojtek's story but also touches on many other themes relating to the Polish wartime experience: the Katyn Forest massacre of 1940, for instance, when 22,000 captured Polish soldiers were shot by the Soviets , and to the fate of those Poles who found themselves on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain after 1945. Ross's father Stefan was one of them. "My father couldn't go back because he would possibly have disappeared," he says.

A waiter and later a shopkeeper, whose first conversation with Ross's mother when he met her at a dance was conducted in Latin, Stefan Raszkowski didn't talk much about the war. Hardly surprising: he had been sent to Auschwitz at the start of the conflict and was only released, Ross thinks, because German friends of the family interceded, probably with a hefty bribe. After his release he made his way through underground networks to Britain, where he joined the war effort.

"He would speak about things only in snatches," says Ross, whose play about his father's life was performed at the Fringe in 2000. "You might ask him things and he would say 'You don't want to know'. But he would tell me sometimes about when he was on the run and he was lifted by the Gestapo. He was chained by his ankles and had his head dropped onto a concrete floor. You'd look at him and say 'That's terrible' and he'd say 'That was normal, that's what they do'."

Ross's uncles weren't even that lucky. "One of my father's brothers died in Dachau, because he was an officer in the Polish army, and another brother who was a priest was shot outside his church in Bydgoszcz in October 1939. You can still see the bullet holes in the church wall. So they were my uncles who I never met. I was brought up with a dead family on that side, which was strange."

Theatre Objektiv performed Wojtek The Bear at the Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh in 2012 and again at that year's Fringe under the aegis of Universal Arts, run by well-known producer and impressario Tomek Borkowy. Borkowy's half-brother, Edward Dargiewicz, is artistic director of the English Theater Company in Warsaw and it was he who invited Theatre Objektiv to perform the play in Poland after he saw it in Edinburgh.

Ross travelled to Poland for the play's premiere last month and was delighted by the response. "It was interesting because a lot of people afterwards said things like 'How can you know this? How can you see all this from our perspective?'" he says. "I think people found it interesting a Scottish company, or a non-Polish company, could come in and show their history to a degree as they see it. I think that had a big effect on people."

Although deeply embedded in his work, Poland and Polish culture aren't Ross's only concern. He spent 27 years at the helm of Cencrastus - founded in 1979, its masthead promised "Scottish and international literature, arts and affairs" - and among his other plays are The Massacre Of Tranent (about the killing of miners in the East Lothian town in the late 18th century), The Old Quarter (inspired by the stories of Czech writer Jan Neruda) and King Of The Witches (about the notorious North Berwick witch trials of 1590).

Even football has come under his dramatist's eye. Although he rebelled at school by becoming a Rangers supporter (at least for a season or two), Ross penned We Are The Hibees! for the Brunton Theatre Company in 1996 and followed that a year later with The Jock Stein Story, performed at the Pavilion Theatre in Glasgow in a production directed by John Murtagh.

I can't be sure, but I think I catch sight of a Celtic mug in his study, which might tell you where his footballing loyalties lie today. Or maybe not.

What's certain is that Wojtek continues to loom large in Raymond Ross's life. Dargiewicz has invited Theatre Objektiv back to Poland for another run of performances next year and now wants to commission a Polish language version so the play can tour more widely in the country.

In April, meanwhile, the play undertakes a tour of Scotland and northern England and then travels to London. Wojtek, says Ross, "is bigger in Poland now than he has ever been".

The story of the ursine soldier and the men whose lives he shared still has some miles still to travel, it seems.

Contextual targeting label: 
Block list

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

201619