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I'm calling this a children's Odyssey although Ruth, Edek and Bronia and their friend Jan are not trying to get home to Warsaw, which has been obliterated in the Second World War, but to reunite themselves with their parents.
Ian Serraillier wrote The Silver Sword in 1956 and in my opinion it's still one of the pick of the crop of children's literature written about the war.
When the children's schoolmaster father, Joseph Balicki, is arrested by the Germans for turning a portrait of Hitler to face the wall in his classroom and their mother is deported to Germany as a slave labourer their outlook is grim. The war is in its closing stages and the destruction wrought by the Nazis is about to give way to the chaotic and often vicious arrival of the Red Army.
Some time afterwards Ruth, Edek and Bronia, the Balicki children, now living rough in ruined buildings, rescue a scruffy urchin, Jan, who possesses a broken silver sword letter opener. The letter opener was given to him by Joseph Balicki, on the run from the prison camp in which the Germans incarcerated him. Along with the gift, Joseph charged Jan with a message: if Jan ever comes across his children, he should tell them to make for Switzerland (their mother was Swiss), where their parents will wait for them.
The children embark on a journey across the burned-out and despoiled landscape of Poland and Germany, reliant on the kindness of strangers. What I like about The Silver Sword is that expectations as to who might be generous to a group of Polish children are sometimes subverted. It's the German farmer and his wife who are particularly kind to them. We discover that the farmer lost both his sons in the war: a reminder that things aren't always black and white. There are good Germans and bad Germans, just as there are kind Russians and greedy Russians. Ruth remembers that, in the early years of the German occupation of Warsaw, some of the German soldiers gave her sweets.
Sometimes it's the kindness of adults that the children have to fight, as well-meaning people try and prevent them from going further on this dangerous and possibly futile mission.
The silver sword Joseph gave Jan, now broken, but still treasured and loved, becomes a symbol of the children's determination, their utter refusal to believe that their mother and father won't be waiting for them in Switzerland.
This mission will require immense sacrifice from all the children. The urchin Jan will have to choose between the dog he's adopted. Edek's health is terribly damaged by the suffering he's endured both during the journey and the proceeding years. Ruth has sacrificed years of her childhood to become a surrogate mother to the group. Little Bronia has barely any recollections of normal family life.
Without giving away the ending I will just say that the tension as the children approach the German/Swiss border is nail-biting until the very end. But this is so much more than an adventure story: it's a coming-of-age story and almost a saga. Above all, it's deeply moving but completely non-sentimental. Ian Serraillier was a Quaker and the book quietly makes the observation that acts of violence, by whatever side, are fruitless. What matters is love and humanity. Who better to encapsulate this sentiment than Michael Tippett, whoses Child of Our Time is quoted at the beginning: Here is no final grieving, but an abiding hope. The moving waters renew the earth. It is spring.
I've read this book to my children when they were about eight and ten. Children of ten and above who are interested in history would enjoy it. I still like to read it myself every few years.
It's difficult to imagine the whole of Europe as a heaving mass of people on the move, some with urgent, fixed purpose, some with no idea at all of what to do next. Bombed-out piles of rubble where whole towns and cities used to stand. Ration cards, bread queues, soup kitchens, Red Cross camps. Occupying armies, Russian sector, American sector, British sector.
This is the landscape in which The Silver Sword is set. It's a story about how the Balicki family are torn apart by the Germans from their home in Warsaw, Poland, in 1940, and how they succeed in reuniting themselves in Switzerland at the end of the war. Of course, after five years of extraordinary deprivation, fear and grief, the Balickis are not much like the people that they were before the war started. The children have grown up. But, in time, they are all ready to make a new start.
The first person to be separated from the family is Joseph Balicki, father and school headmaster. He is taken to a bleak prison camp in south Poland. Although eventually he manages to escape from the camp and make his way back to Warsaw, he is too late to be of any immediate help to his family. His wife has already been taken by the Germans to a labour camp, and the Nazis have blown up his house. Joseph Balicki is told by neighbours that his three children have not been seen since and they are widely believed to be dead.
What can he do? He spends many days searching the ruins of Warsaw for his children. The city is full of orphans living in cellars and worse. But his position is difficult and he eventually makes good his escape to Switzerland. Fortunately, before he goes he meets Jan, a young orphaned boy who survives in the wastes on his wits alone. Joseph asks Jan to keep a look out for his three children, Ruth, Edek and Bronia, and gives Jan a silver paper-knife in the shape of a sword as a token of recognition, and with a message to the children to make their way to their grandparents' house in Switzerland.
Eventually Jan and the three Balicki children meet up in Warsaw and join forces to make the difficult journey, through the waves of refugees and different sectors of occupation, to Switzerland. The silver sword becomes a powerful symbol of hope to all of them as their story unfolds:
At midnight the fire had died down to a red glow. She was still awake. Out of the darkness and the stillness a voice spoke, or rather gasped, her name.
'Edek! I thought you were asleep,' she said.
'I can't sleep. The pain's too bad,' said Edek. 'I can't - go on - any further.'
'You'll feel better in the morning.'; said Ruth.
'Can't walk any more,' said Edek.
'We'll get a lift. It's only eighty miles.'
'There's no traffic going that way,' said Edek.
She talked to him quietly for a while and, after a further bout of coughing, he dropped off to sleep. But anxiety for him kept her awake. A change had come over him during the last twenty-four hours. If they did not reach Switzerland soon, he might not live.
The hours crept on, and still she did not sleep.
Once more out of the stillness a voice called her name. This time it was Jan.
'Ruth, may I have Edek's shoes when he dies?' he said.
'He's not going to die,' said Ruth, forcing herself to speak calmly.
'He will if I don't have my sword,' said Jan. 'And we'll never find your father either. He gave me the sword and it's our guide and lifeline. We can't do without it.'
He spoke with such certainty that she almost believed him. It was true that, while they had the sword, fortune had been kind to them.
This is a book about the difficulties of surviving in a world that has been destroyed by war. But it is, essentially, a gentle book about how the children look after each other. Children, without adult protection, doing what they think is best.
About the author:
Ian Seraillier was born in 1912 and became an English teacher before the outbreak of World War II. As a Quaker he was granted the status of conscientious objector before having his first novel published in 1946. The Silver Sword, published in 1956, was one of a number of novels and poems he wrote for children. He also penned retellings of Greek myths, Beowulf and Chaucer. Seraillier developed Alzheimer's before his death in 1994.
The following Note appears at the start of the book before the story begins.
Note: The characters in this book are fictitious, but the story is based upon true fact. Imaginary names have been given to a few of the places mentioned - they are the villages of Boding and Kolina, the River Falken and the town of Falkenburg and the prison camp of Zakyna. All other place names are real and can be found on the map of Europe. The description of the red army on the march is based on eye witness accounts in J. Stransky's "East Wind Over Prague"
Everything changed when the Nazis invaded Poland. For Joseph Balicki, headmaster of a primary school, it meant having to teach in German and having a picture of Hitler in all the classrooms. Reported to the Nazis for turning Hitler's picture to the wall during a scripture lesson Joseph finds himself snatched from his family and bundled off to the Zakyna prison camp. Escaping from the camp after spending two years there he manages to make it back to Warsaw to find the city in ruins. He speaks to Mrs. Krause, a member of the Polish Council for Protection who tells him that his wife was taken away by the Nazis to work on the land.
When pressed about his children, Ruth, Edek and Bronia, Mrs. Krause tells him that someone shot a rifle from the house when Mrs. Balicki was being taken away and that the Nazis later returned and blew the house up. The children haven't been seen since and are presumed to have been killed in the explosion.
Joseph manages to locate his old house but there's no sign of his children. He finds "The Silver Sword", a paper knife that he once gave to his wife as a birthday present amongst the ruins of the house and also meets a young thief called Jan. The pair of them strike up a conversation, Joseph telling Jan about his family and how he's going to go to Switzerland because that's where he agreed to meet his wife if they ever got separated. He gives Jan the Silver Sword and asks him to tell Ruth (15), Edek (13) and Bronia (5) about Switzerland should he ever meet them. Jan then guides him to a suitable spot where the trains slow down so that he can jump onto one of them.
We then jump backwards in time to discover that Edek fired the rifle on the night that his mother was taken by the Nazis. The children managed to get out of a skylight and away over the tops of the adjoining houses before the Nazis came back and blew the house up. Forced to fend for themselves they burrowed into a cellar at the other end of the city spending the winters there and the summers outside the city in the forest. Edek became part of a smuggling gang so the children did rather well for food until the day in 1942 that he was caught by the Nazis and was taken away by them.
By early 1945 Warsaw was in Russian hands and Ruth and Bronia were back in their cellar, two years without any news of Edek. One day Bronia finds a boy outside the cellar who is unable to get up. The boy proves to be Jan and eventually Ruth sees the Silver Sword that he still carries and he tells her about his meeting with her father. A Russian sentry named Ivan tells Ruth that they've traced Edek to a transit camp at Posen so she, Jan and Bronia begin the journey to find him.
At Posen, they discover that Edek has TB and that he's been sent to another camp with the rest of the TB cases but, once they arrive there they find out that Edek at run away. Ruth finally finds him at a field kitchen and the group of four are at last ready to press on to Switzerland. But, as they draw closer to that country the military authorities issue an order stating that all refugees should be returned to their country of origin......
My whole class read this at school when I was aged about 10 and I liked the book so much that I went out and bought my own copy of it. The story is told in the third person and it's made explicit from the beginning that the narrator is telling a story based on fact. Aside from the note (above) the reader is told:- "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 her. 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".
So why did I buy this book? What makes it so good?
The language used is easy for children in the target range to understand, which is not to say that the book is simplistic or that it talks down to them, because it doesn't. Seraillier's use of descriptive narrative makes it easy for the reader to visualise the surroundings in which the children find themselves so, for example, once the children have made their new home in the cellar at the other end of the city we're told:- "From the street it looked like a rabbit's burrow in a mound of rubble, with part of a wall rising behind. On the far side there was a hole in the lower part of the wall, and this let in light and air as well as rain". Then we're told how Edek forages for various things to improve their home, bricks from the rubble, a mattress and some curtains from a bombed building, some floorboards with which he built beds and some blankets which were stolen from a Nazi supply dump.
The children in the book all have their own distinct characters. Bronia, being the youngest, barely remembers her parents and takes refuge in art, covering the cellar walls with drawings in charcoal that they've made from the left over ashes of their fires. Edek, once he's returned from Germany, coughs and is suffering from tuberculosis. We see him weaken as the story progresses and wonder whether he'll actually make it to Switzerland, especially when, close to the end of the book he can barely manage to work up the energy to put one foot in front of the other.
Ruth, as you may have guessed, is the mother figure. She's forced to become more proactive once Edek's been taken by the Nazis in order to ensure that both she and Bronia survive and, once Jan has "joined up" with them she's the only person that is capable of instilling some discipline in him. Jan is perhaps the most complex of the children. We know nothing of his parents, so we assume he's an orphan. He can't, so far as we know, remember his mother and father. When Joseph first meets him he has a cat and this animal theme continues throughout the book. He has a cockerel with him when Bronia finds him outside the cellar and he makes friends with other animals on the journey towards Switzerland, including an escaped chimpanzee and an elderly farm dog. He also has a deep dislike of soldiers or indeed any sort of authority and because of this there's some tension between him and Edek when Edek is found. Jan, of course, is used to being the provider and the male protector of Ruth and Bronia and this role is something taken over by Edek once he's found.
When I originally read this book, aged around 10 I was used to having meals on the table, toys to play with etc. Any war films I'd watched up to that point mainly dealt with the war from a military point of view. People got killed etc but I don't remember being aware of what the civilian population were subjected to at that point. The Silver Sword changed all of that because it's a story of how one "family unit" dealt with life in Warsaw, of the problems they faced getting hold of something as basic as food and shelter, which of course, we all take for granted.
Even though it's only just over 60 years ago it's hard to imagine practically the entire continent of Europe in a state of massive upheaval because of the thousands / millions of people who had gone off to fight or had been dragged away from their homes to work on the land, or in factories or had been put into prison camps. Seraillier captures a sense of what this must have been like as he describes how the children are sometimes journeying with the flow of the refugees and sometimes moving in a direction that the majority of refugees aren't. His descriptions of what the people looked like, what they wore, many not having shoes for example, and the sorts of thing they carried with them helps the young reader form a picture of what conditions at the time must have been like.
The book mentions the Warsaw uprising under General Bor as well as mentioned Churchill and Stalin. Auschwitz gets a mention but Seraillier doesn't mention what went on there which is perhaps a wise move given that this is a book which can be read by younger children. So, even though this book details some of the "horrors of war" it doesn't go too far. Children can get the more gory details when they're older.
Overall then, this is a story about how a group of children dealt with all the problems and adversities that World War II threw at them, how they battled their way across Europe towards Switzerland and of the help and hindrance they encountered on the way. The Silver Sword remains a potent symbol of hope and determination throughout the book as it's the only thing of their parents that Ruth, Edek and Bronia have to remember them by. Jan, of course, treasures it because it's something he was willingly given that than something he stole so he's convinced it symbolises hope and good fortune for them.
The story as a whole is an ideal introduction to World War II for younger children and it's universal message of hope, loyalty, determination and the general goodness of your average human being should strike a chord with readers on any age. If you haven't read it, even if you're an adult, then check it out. You won't be disappointed.
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Red Fox; New edition (3 April 2003)