All objects have stories: of their origin, where they have been, and what they mean to people. Objects can remind us of happier times. They can bring back memories of vacations, loved ones, and home.
Gregory Bear was a Christmas gift to Ursula when she was 3 years old, in 1939. He was taken from a display window in Riga (present day Latvia) and was delivered to her in Königsberg, East Prussia (present day Kaliningrad, Russia) after the Christmas display was taken down. Ursula loved Gregory Bear deeply. She carried him with her around the house, and when she went on errands with her mother.
At the time, Königsberg was under Nazi rule. As a port city close to Sweden and Russia it was strategically crucial, and it was bombed throughout World War II. In 1944, British bombing attacks burned the city for several days. Ursula and her family, along with many others, fled the city ahead of the Soviet Army’s advance.
While Ursula wanted to keep Gregory Bear close, Ursula’s mother packed their possessions, and placed Gregory Bear in her favorite blue leather steamer trunk. She hoped that the bear, which would be of no interest to soldiers, would save the trunk, which she had used when traveling from her native city of Memel, East Prussia (present day Lithuania) to Königsberg to marry Ursula’s father. Ursula’s mother sent the trunk to be mailed and took Ursula to flee.
In the havoc of the invasion, the family was caught and sent to a Russian Prisoner of War camp outside of Danzig. Many families from Central Europe were sent to internment camps and were used as forced labor as part of German reparations. They were separated from their possessions, and believed the trunk, with Gregory Bear inside, to be lost. Ursula thought of Gregory Bear often while she endured the harsh conditions of the camp. She thought of holding his paw while walking in the street, of sitting next to him in bed, and of giving him a place at the table next to her. She hoped that he was warm and safe, and maybe even waiting for her somewhere.
In 1946 Ursula’s family was released from the POW camp and they returned to Königsberg. The city was mostly destroyed—the historic cathedral and castle, all the old and new universities, and the shipping quarters gone. The city population, numbering 372,164 when Gregory was given to Ursula as a Christmas gift, had fallen to about 120,000 survivors.
In 1948 a post office in Zuhl contacted Ursula’s family to say that the trunk had been marked undeliverable and had sat in the post office for the remainder of the war. Ursula’s mother paid to have the trunk returned. The trunk was destroyed, but Ursula was overjoyed to find Gregory Bear inside and unharmed.
In 1960 Ursula and her family immigrated to the United States. They traveled on the S.S. Berlin, where Gregory Bear was comfortably stowed in a new steamer trunk. Ursula and Gregory Bear settled outside of Buffalo. For 50 years Ursula kept him close as a reminder of family, perseverance, and hope.
In 2010, Ursula donated Gregory Bear to Boston Children’s Museum, where he can continue to teach and inspire through his story of survival. He is currently on display with another teddy bear as part of our Big and Little exhibition.
What are your comfort objects? The things you hold onto when you’re tired or scared? Stressed out or anxious? How do these objects help you get through hard times and struggles? What objects have been with you the longest? What experiences have those objects had?