The Silver Sword (aka Escape From Warsaw), by Ian Serraillier

I will outline features of The Silver Sword sufficient for an appreciation of the main character’s journey to bring her family, separated in WW2, back together.

A straightforward plot summary, is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Silver_Sword and a review treating The Silver Sword as a novel about the “the difficulties of surviving in a world that has been destroyed by war” is available at www.readingmatters.co.uk/book.php?id=81.

The opening paragraphs of the novel set up the main story as well as the general plot structure. The first 5 of 29 chapters follow Joseph Balicki, and the following 24 follow the Balicki children with Ruth as the focal point that holds the story together.

This is the story of a Polish family, and of what happened to them during the Second World War and immediately afterward. Their home was in a suburb of Warsaw, where the father, Joseph Balicki, was headmaster of a primary school. He and his Swiss wife, Margrit, had three children. In early 1940, the year when the Nazi’s took Joseph away to prison, Ruth, the eldest, was nearly thirteen, Edek was eleven, and the fair-haired Bronia three.

Warsaw under the Nazis was a place of terror, and without their father to protect them the Balickis had a grim time of it. But worse was in store for them. They were to endure hardships and conditions which made them think and plan and act more like adults than children. Great responsibilities were to fall upon Ruth. Many other girls had to face difficulties as great as hers. But if there were any who faced them with as much courage, unselfishness, and common sense as she did, I have not heard of them.

First I must tell of Joseph Balicki and what happened to him in the prison camp of Zakyna.

Main Characters

(Character ages are as at the beginning of the story. 5 years pass in the second plot section outlined below.)

Joseph

Joseph Balicki is a former high school teacher in German occupied Poland, who was imprisoned after turning a picture of Hitler in his classroom to face the wall. He is the father of Ruth, Edek, and Bronia.

Jan

Jan (10) is an orphaned boy in Warsaw who steals food, has little or no respect for authority, and takes care of stray animals.

Ruth

Ruth (nearly 13) is a caring, responsible, and determined girl who looks after her siblings and teaches local young children.

Edek

Edek (11), a member of the Polish resistance, is protective of his family but takes risks that are not always necessary.

Bronia

Bronia (3) makes the best of circumstances and follows Ruth’s lead.

Plot

The novel has 29 chapters, which I have divided into 6 sections and an epilogue.
1. In chapters 1-5, the story of Joseph’s imprisonment in Zakyna work camp, his escape, and his attempt to reunite with his family in Warsaw is told.
2. In chapters 6-10, the plot is taken back to the night Joseph and subsequently his wife Margrit, were arrested, and the story of the Balicki children’s experience in Warsaw between 1940 and 1944 is told. Edek is taken away when he is caught smuggling food, and Ruth takes Jan into her and Bronia’s makeshift home.
3. In chapters 11-13, the story of Ruth and Bronia’s reunion with Edek in Posen is told. Reunited, and having learnt of the end of the war in Europe, the children head for a relative’s home in Switzerland, where their family had agreed to meet if anything separated them.
4. In chapters 14-18, the story of the contrast between Ruth’s sense of responsibility and judgment, and Jan’s (on their journey between Berlin and Bavaria) is told.
5. In chapters 19-24, the story of the children’s shelter at a Bavarian farm and their narrow escape from the Burgomaster, a Government official who has been employed to return Poles to Poland, is told.
6. In chapters 25-28, the story of the final leg of the children’s journey to Switzerland is told.
7. Chapter 29 is an epilogue telling how the children’s lives turn out.

Ensemble of Incidental Characters

Jan has a series of animals that he cares for: in section 1, he has a kitten; when he re-enters the story in section 2, he no longer has the kitten but has a rooster named Jimpy who dies in a food camp scrum at Posen in section 3; and in section 5, he befriends a dog named Ludwig who stows away and travels with them to the Swiss border before Jan is forced by circumstance to choose between saving the life of Ludwig or Edek.
There are numerous incidental characters throughout the story. In section 1, an old Polish couple hide Joseph from German Soldiers. In Section 2, Ivan, the Russian sentry, helps the children. In section 3, Jan helps a British Captain being harassed by a monkey escaped from the damaged Berlin Zoo, and is rewarded for his efforts. In section 4, Bavarian farmers, Mr and Mrs Wolff, shelter and assist the children. In section 5, Joe Wolski, an American soldier of Polish parents, gives them a lift to a camp at the Swiss border. In section 6, Ruth meets with the administrator of the camp.

Themes

Tenacity

I have selected Ruth’s tenacity as the primary theme to highlight here. That is, her persistent determination to bring her family back together.

Her family is separated when her father is arrested and taken to a work camp, and her mother is taken away the same night. Later that year, her brother Edek is arrested for food smuggling and taken away too. Following the battle of Warsaw, Ruth tries to find out what happened to Edek, through the Polish Welfare Office and through the occupying Russian Army. Her persistence pays off when a Russian sentry takes an interest in her problem and brings her news of Edek’s location. Upon travelling to Posen and reuniting with Edek, who is suffering from tuberculosis, it is up to Ruth to lead herself, Edek, Bronia, and Jan on a journey from Poland to Switzerland in the hope that her parents have survived and made it there themselves.

This tenactity includes aspects of responsible judgment, compassion, and inventiveness.

Responsibility and Judgment

Ruth’s responsibility and judgment is contrasted with that of Edek and Jan.

When their mother is taken away, Edek shoots at the German soldiers and Ruth tells him he shouldn’t have done it because they might come back for them. As they escape across the roof, the soldiers retaliate by destroying the Balicki’s home with grenades.

While living on the outskirts of Warsaw, Edek smuggles food for the Poles to provide relatively well for his siblings until he is caught by the Germans, whereas Ruth takes a less risky approach and also takes on the responsibility of caring for and teaching other children.

When Ruth took in Jan following the Battle of Warsaw, she discourages his stealing and later in the story he is sentenced to seven days detention for his involvement in the robbery of an American goods train between Berlin and Bavaria.

Compassion

Ruth’s active compassion, not only for her family but also for others, sets her apart from others around her.

While on the outskirts of Warsaw, Ruth teaches local children, and later sets up a makeshift school in Warsaw.

In Warsaw, she takes Jan in, and even waits for him when he is detained for seven days, between Berlin and Bavaria.

Inventiveness

Inventiveness is a quality shared by numerous characters in the story.

Joseph uses inventiveness in his escape from Zakyna prison camp. Jan uses inventiveness in helping Joseph make his way through the streets of German occupied Warsaw to jump aboard a train as it slows to turn a bend. Ruth uses it in her efforts to track down Edek. The Bavarian farmer, Kurt Wolff, uses it when he comes up with a plan for the children to escape the Burgomaster by river in canoes.

***

Ruth’s tenacity, guided by responsible judgment, compassion, and inventiveness, makes for a compelling, multi-faceted character that is a good example for younger readers, and is used to guide readers through an interesting setting.

Resonsibility, judgment, compassion, and inventiveness are qualities that are shared and contrasted with others characters throughout the novel.

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