The Silver Sword


The Silver Sword

(published in the US as Escape from Warsaw)

by Ian Seraillier

Age: 9+

Interests: history, World War II, Poland, war, family, poverty, refugees, strong female characters

Also by this author: The Ivory Horn, The Enchanted Island, Beowulf the Warrior, There’s No Escape, The Clashing Rocks, They Raced for Treasure, Thomas and the Sparrow

More for this age group about World War II: Number the Stars, The Diary of Anne Frank, War Boy: A Country Childhood

Jonathan Cape: 1956

192 pages

This classic wartime novel is based on fact, though the characters’ names have been changed. It tells the story of a Polish family split up by World War II, and their arduous efforts to find each other when the war is over. After the Nazis invade Poland, the schoolmaster Joseph Balicki is arrested and sent off to a prison camp for turning a portrait of Hitler to face the wall in his classroom. Soon after that the Gestapo arrive to take away his wife as well. Edek (11) takes a potshot at the soldiers from an upper-storey window, forcing he and sisters Ruth (13) and Bronia (3) to flee over the rooftops when the soldiers return to blow up their house.

Joseph manages to escape the camp and returns to find the ruins of his home. When a rough, homeless youth named Jan steals his sandwich, Joseph trades him an ornate letter-opener – the silver sword of the title – which soon becomes Jan’s most precious possession. Joseph says he is going to Switzerland, where he believes his wife will go if she is freed. He asks Jan to tell his children to go there too, if he ever runs into them.

The bulk of the book follows the three siblings as they struggle to survive in wartime. They camp out in abandoned buildings in the city during the winter and move out to the forest in the summer. They must steal food to survive, and while doing this Edek is caught and sent to a labour camp. The years go by and the sisters get along the best they can. Ruth even starts a little school for the homeless children that seem to be everywhere. As the war slowly comes to an end and the Russian army recaptures Warsaw, the girls return from the forest and chance upon Jan, lying in the street, gravely ill. Ruth takes him in and nurses him back to health. At that point they see and recognize the sword and Jan passes on their father’s message. Before they can go to Switzerland, however, the sisters must find their brother. Jan joins them and they eventually locate Edek, who is gravely ill with tuberculosis. The four children then make their way, against great odds to Switzerland where the Red Cross helps them to locate both of their parents. Jan’s parents cannot be found, however, so the Balicki family adopts him.

This family’s dogged quest to find one another stretches over several years and many miles. It gives an interesting view of conditions immediately after the war, as the continent was awash in homeless refugees, all trying to locate their loved ones. It’s important to note that when a major war ends, all is not immediately set right. Starvation, illness, homelessness, and general chaos follow in the wake of such a devastating conflict, and refugees of all kind must rebuild, their families, their homes, their cities, and their lives.

This novel is a much-loved classic in the U.K., though lesser-known in North America. The style of writing is rather dispassionate and the convoluted sequence of events, random setbacks and small victories, adds to the realism of the tale. The way too, that the children’s hopes and superstitions centre around a household knick-knack – the silver sword – is eminently believable. The siblings are well articulated, particularly Ruth, who rises to the challenges she faces in keeping them alive and well. Jan is forged by immense hardship into an incorrigible, thieving opportunist. Ruth has her hands full trying to reform him, though it is obvious that without his (and Edek’s) thievery they may have starved to death during those hard years.

The dangers they face are real, death is all around them and starvation a constant concern, but the story here is one of courage and optimism, as the children all survive, and find their parents alive and well. The last chapter describes how they went on to build a home and school in Switzerland for the many orphans of the war. A valuable historical fiction about World War II and its aftermath, suitable for children who may not yet be ready for the more horrifying tales from that time.



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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.
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