The Silver Sword
First edition cover
|Illustrator||C. Walter Hodges|
|Country||United Kingdom, United States|
The Silver Sword is a novel by Ian Serraillier, a children's classic, first published in the UK in 1956 by Jonathan Cape and then by Puffin Books in 1960. It had also been published in the U.S. under the title Escape From Warsaw. The story is based upon fact, although fictional names are given to a few of the places mentioned. The account of the Red Army on the march derived from eye-witness accounts in Jan Stransky's East Wind over Prague. An eight-part children's television series was produced by the BBC in 1957 at the Lime Grove Studios in London, and a further BBC television version was produced in the early 1970s.
John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, has acknowledged a debt to the novel: "the book stands out for me as a great children's classic – [it] was my first introduction to the Second World War in fiction, to the horrors of the Nazi era, and the fear that capture could instill in the minds of its young heroes Ruth, Edek and Bronia."
Joseph Balicki, the headmaster of a Polish school in Warsaw, was arrested by the Gestapo in early 1940 and taken away to a prison camp. His school had been taken over by the Nazis after the invasion of Austria and France and he was forced to teach lessons entirely in German. Pictures of Adolf Hitler had been put up all over the school, and during a lesson Joseph had turned one of these pictures around to face the wall. Someone had reported this to the Nazis, and as a result he was taken from his house to the prison camp on a cold winter's night. He was in the prison for more than a year before escaping, after knocking out a guard who was bringing food to his cell, and stealing the guard's uniform. He then decides to head to his hometown of Warsaw.
Even though Joseph was taken away, his wife and three children (Ruth aged nearly 13, Edek aged 11 and Bronia aged 3) were left behind to fend for themselves to survive.
After fleeing the prison, he arrived at a house and took refuge with an elderly couple who lived there. They are at first confused by his Polish appearance and speech combined with the fact he is in a Nazi uniform, but they accept him as a friend after he explains what has happened to him and he shows them his prison number branded on his arm as proof. Shortly after his arrival, they hear the prison camp "escape bell" ringing in the distance, and he realizes that his escape has been discovered. Nazi soldiers arrived at the house searching for the escapee the next day, but Joseph hid up a chimney to avoid being captured or shot. Two German soldiers had entered the house and fired bullets up the chimney in a bid to find out if anyone was there, but they fled the house (fearful of ruining their uniforms) after dislodging a heap of soot. Joseph spent two more weeks in the house before deciding to return to Warsaw. The old man came with him for the first part of the journey, after which he ventured on alone.
When Joseph eventually returned to Warsaw, he found it unrecognizable owing to extensive bomb damage. His old house was one of the many buildings to have been wrecked, and he asks Mrs Krause (a mother of a child he used to teach) for information about his family. She tells Joseph that his wife was taken away by the Gestapo, probably to work on farmland in Germany. On the night that she was abducted, someone fired gunshots at the Gestapo as they took Mrs Balicki away, and a while afterwards the Gestapo returned to blow the house up. The children were never found, and Mrs Krause says that they had probably died.
When Joseph returns to the ruins of his old house, he finds a boy laying down half dead among the ruins with a cat. He is holding a paper knife - the Silver Sword - that was once a possession of his wife Margrit. He allows the boy (who introduces himself as Jan, a master pickpocket) to keep it if he gives him the sandwich that he took from Joseph. Joseph tells Jan that he is planning to track down his wife who would have tried to make her way to Switzerland as she has family there, and if he ever sees his children to tell them where he has gone. Jan helps Joseph find a goods train going towards Germany on which he makes his escape.
On the night of Mrs. Balicki's disappearance, Nazi Stormtroopers had broken into the house and taken her away, only for Edek to fire shots at the van in a bid to stop them from getting away. Ruth admonished Edek for his folly and realised that they had to escape, climbing along the rooftops of the adjacent houses, and watched from a distance as their house was blown up.
The three children then spent the winter living in the cellar of a bombed house on the other side of Warsaw, and the summer living in woodlands outside the city. Edek fell in with black market dealers, regularly stealing food and clothes for his sisters and all the other children living with them, until one evening he failed to return. Ruth eventually found out that Edek had called at a house where the Nazis were searching for hoarded goods. They had then captured Edek as well as the house owner, setting the house on fire before driving away with their captives.
In 1944, Warsaw was liberated but there was still no news of Edek's whereabouts, nor those of their parents. Ruth and Bronia were still living in the city, in a new shelter, and one day Bronia finds an older boy lying prone in the street. He introduces himself as Jan, and in his possession he has a wooden box.
Ruth makes friends with a Russian sentry called Ivan, who is stationed at a nearby control post and has been assigned as a liaison to the civilian population. He gives her various supplies, and becomes a good friend. He eventually manages to find out that Edek is in Posen, having escaped from the prison camp where he had been held. Ruth, Bronia and Jan make their way to the city and eventually find him at a refugee feeding station, but he is suffering from tuberculosis.
Once the three siblings are back together, they travel by train to Berlin, intent on finding their parents. They arrive in the city during May 1945, shortly after the end of the Second World War in Europe and the suicide of Adolf Hitler. They arrive at a refugee camp, but Jan soon goes missing in pursuit of an escaped chimpanzee which had managed to flee from the zoo. Jan and the chimpanzee became best friends. He makes a friend of a British army officer called Mark, who wrote a letter to his aunt about the chimpanzee and its antics. Jan eventually returns to the others, and along with Ruth he gets a temporary job.
As the children make their way through Germany, Edek who is getting steadily worse with tuberculosis is arrested while following Jan - who has been stealing food from several American trains bringing supplies to the troops. They are both prosecuted by the military tribunal but Edek is cleared of any crimes whilst Jan leads a spirited defence where he points out that certain American troops are equally guilty in stealing from the conquered Germans. However, Jan is sentenced to a week's detention. Upon his release, the children continue south and are taken in by a Bavarian farmer called Kurt. All of the children are put to work on the farm except Edek who assists the farmer's wife with light chores.
A Burgomaster who is doing his rounds, crashes his car outside the farm. Edek volunteers to help him fix the damage, but Bronia asks a question in Polish betraying the identity of the children. The Burgomaster later tells Kurt of a recent edict that all foreign nationals and refugees are to be returned to their country of origin; the children are to be returned to Poland.
To avoid being sent back, Kurt helps the children escape on canoes, and Jan has Kurt's pet dog hidden in his canoe. They are intent on reaching the River Danube. They row along the Falkenberg River and overcome a series of hazards as well as a soldier who fires a few rounds at Ruth and Bronia.
After their canoe journey, Jan notices that the Silver Sword has gone missing and he believes it to be back at Kurt's house. This causes Edek's condition to take a turn for the worse. Jan and the dog go missing, and an American GI lorry driver called Joe Wolski gives the children a lift in their quest to find Jan. He jokes that a hyena and a bear are in the back of his truck, but when he opens the back of the truck, Jan and the dog, Ludwig, are inside.
The children then meet a Superintendent, who tells them that he has received messages from their father. The Superintendent had received a letter from Kurt, who had also sent the Silver Sword with the letter, knowing the children had to go through him to get to Switzerland.
The final adventure, a lake crossing of Lake Constance, proves to be the most dangerous as a terrible storm whips up capsizing their boat. Edek almost drowns because he is too weak but Jan is able to save the Balicki children. Finally the children are reunited with their parents and reintroduce Jan. His record is sent to the authorities, but his parents are never traced and the Balickis accept his request to adopt him.
In 1946, the Balickis are later put in charge of a Polish House in an International Children's Village in Switzerland. Bronia develops a talent for art and draws numerous pictures of war scenes, Edek spends two years recovering from his TB and goes on to become an engineer, Jan gets a new Jewish cat named Arlo, mends his thieving ways and is regularly called upon to care for sick animals, and Ruth becomes a teacher. On marrying a Frenchman, Ruth is put in charge of the French House in the village in the early 1950s.
- Author's Note, The Silver Sword, Vintage 2012 ISBN 978-0-099-57285-5
- The Independent, Radar section, 11 August 2012, p.26-27