The Silver Sword
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 US 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 is derived from eye-witness accounts in Jan Stransky's East Wind over Prague. The Silver Sword has been adapted for television and radio.
“Joseph Balicki", the school headmaster of a Polish school in Warsaw, is arrested by the Nazi Storm Troops in early 1940, a few months into World War II, and taken away to a prison camp. His middle school had already been taken over by the Nazis after the Invasion of Poland, and he was forced to teach lessons entirely in German. Pictures of Adolf Hitler had been put up around 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. His wife, Margrit, and three children (Ruth aged nearly 14, Edek 11, and Bronia 3) are left behind to fend for themselves and survive. He spends more than a year in prison before escaping, after knocking out a guard and stealing the man's uniform. He then heads to his hometown of Warsaw.
After fleeing the prison, Joseph arrives at a house in a nearby village and takes refuge with an elderly couple living there. They are at first confused by his Polish appearance and speech, combined with his Nazi uniform, but they accept him as a friend after he tells them about what has happened to him, and shows them the 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 realises his escape must have been detected. German soldiers arrive the next day searching for the escapee, but Joseph has hidden up a chimney to avoid being captured or shot. Two soldiers had entered the house and fire bullets up the chimney to discover if anyone is there, but they flee the house (fearful of ruining their uniforms) after dislodging a heap of soot. Joseph spends two weeks in the house before returning to Warsaw. The old man travels with him for the first part of the journey, after which Joseph ventures on alone.
When Joseph eventually reaches Warsaw, he barely recognises the city owing to its having been so badly damaged by bombing. He eventually finds the ruins of his house, and discovers a boy sitting among the ruins with a cat. He is holding a paper knife – the Silver Sword – that was once Margrit's. Joseph allows the boy (who has introduced himself as Jan, a master pickpocket), to keep it if he returns the sandwich he has already stolen from Joseph. Joseph tells Jan that he was planning to track down his wife who will have tried to make her way to Switzerland, as she has family there, and asks Jan to tell Joseph's children where he has gone, should Jan ever see them. Jan helps Joseph find a goods train going towards Germany, on which Joseph makes his escape.
Shortly after Joseph was taken to prison-camp, Nazi Stormtroopers had broken into the house and taken her away. Edek had fired shots at the retreating van in a bid to stop them from getting away. Ruth had admonished Edek for his folly and realised they had to escape, so the children climbed 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, and regularly stole food and clothes for his sisters and all the other children living with them, until one evening he failed to return. Ruth eventually discovered 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 and set the house on fire before driving away with their captives.
In 1944, Warsaw was liberated by the Russians, but there was still no news of Edek's whereabouts or of the children's parents. Ruth and Bronia were still living in the city, in a new shelter, and one day Bronia found an older boy lying prone in the street. He introduced himself as Jan, and in his possession he had a wooden box.
Ruth befriended a Russian sentry called Ivan, who was stationed at a nearby control post and had been assigned as a liaison to the civilian population. He gave her various supplies and became a good friend. He eventually managed to find out that Edek was in Posen, having escaped from the German labour camp where he had been held. Ruth, Bronia, and Jan made their way to Posen and eventually found Edek at a refugee feeding station; he was suffering from tuberculosis.
Once the three siblings reunited, they travelled by train to Berlin, intent on finding their parents. They arrived in the city during May 1945, shortly after the end of the Second World War in Europe and the suicide of Adolf Hitler. They arrived at a refugee camp, but Jan soon went missing in pursuit of an escaped chimpanzee, which had managed to flee from the zoo. Jan and the chimpanzee became best friends. He also befriended a British army officer named Mark, who wrote a letter to his aunt about the chimpanzee and its antics. Jan eventually returned to the others, and along with Ruth he obtained a temporary job.
As the children made their way through Germany, Edek, whose health was steadily worsening with tuberculosis, was arrested while following Jan – who had been stealing food from several American trains bringing supplies to the troops. Both boys were prosecuted by the military tribunal, but Edek was cleared of any crimes whilst Jan led a spirited defence, wherein he pointed out that certain American troops were equally guilty of stealing from the conquered Germans. Nonetheless, Jan was sentenced to a week's detention. Upon his release, the children continued south and were taken in by a Bavarian farmer named Kurt. All of the children were put to work on the farm except Edek, who assisted the farmer's wife with light chores.
A burgomaster, who was doing his rounds, crashed his car outside the farm. Edek volunteered to help him fix the damage, but Bronia asked a question in Polish, betraying the children's identity. The burgomaster later told Kurt of a recent edict that all foreign nationals and refugees were to be returned to their country of origin, so the children were to be returned to Poland.
To avoid sending the children back, Kurt helped the children escape on canoes, and Jan hid Kurt's pet dog in his canoe. The children, intent on reaching the River Danube, paddled along the Falkenberg River and overcame a series of hazards, including an encounter with a soldier who fired a few rounds at Ruth and Bronia.
After their canoe journey, Jan noticed that the Silver Sword had gone missing; he believed it was back at Kurt's house. This news caused Edek's condition to take a turn for the worse. Jan and the dog went missing, and an American G.I. lorry driver, named Joe Wolski, gave the children a lift in their quest to find Jan. He joked that a hyena and a bear were in the back of his truck, but when he opened the back of the truck, Jan and the dog, Ludwig, were inside.
The children then met a superintendent, who told them he had 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 crossing of Lake Constance, proved to be the most dangerous as a terrible storm whipped up and capsized their boat. Edek almost drowned, because he was too weak to swim, but Jan was able to save the Balicki children. Finally, the children were reunited with their parents and reintroduced Jan to their father. Jan's record was sent to the authorities, but his parents were never traced, and the Balickis granted his request to adopt him.
In 1946, the Balickis were put in charge of a Polish House in an International Children's Village, in Switzerland. Bronia developed a talent for art and drew numerous pictures of war scenes; Edek spent two years recovering from his tuberculosis and went on to become an engineer; Jan got a new Jewish cat named Arlo, mended his thieving ways, and was regularly called upon to care for sick animals; and Ruth became a teacher. After marrying a Frenchman and starting a family of her own, Ruth was put in charge of the French House in the village, in the early 1950s.
The BBC produced an eight-part children's television series in 1957, at the Lime Grove Studios in London, and a further BBC television version was produced in the early 1970s. In 2011, a year before the centenary of the author's birth, a radio adaptation was produced for BBC Radio 4 Extra.
John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006), has acknowledged a debt to Serraillier's 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."
- Serraillier, Ian. Escape From Warsaw.
- Serraillier, Ian (2012). "Author's Note". The Silver Sword. Vintage. ISBN 978-0-099-57285-5.
- "The Silver Sword Comes to Radio". BBC Radio 4. April 2011.
- "The Silver Sword (TV Mini-Series 1971)". Internet Movie Database. Retrieved 20 March 2016.
- "John Boyne Argues that Great Books Can Break Through Every Barrier of Age". The Independent, Radar section. 11 August 2012. pp. 26–27.