The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier opens with a description of the Polish family at the heart of the story. The father, Joseph Balicki, is a headmaster at a primary school on the outskirts of Warsaw. His wife, Margrit, is originally from Switzerland. She and Joseph have three children: the oldest, Ruth, is almost thirteen; her brother Edek is eleven; and the youngest, Bronia, is three. The author tells the reader that this family faced great adversities during and after the Second World War, and that, while they all acted courageously, Ruth was especially brave and resilient.
When the Nazis occupy Poland at the beginning of World War II, Joseph Balicki’s school is forced to teach pro-German textbooks and to display pictures of Adolf Hitler. In early 1940, after Joseph turns the picture of Hitler in his classroom to face the wall, he is taken by the Nazis and sent to Zakyna, a prison camp in the mountains of southern Poland. The prisoners have barely enough to eat and the cold weather keeps them continually in fear for their lives, but Joseph is determined to find a way to escape.
After he has been in the prison camp for over a year, Joseph comes up with a strategy to escape Zakyna. He deliberately starts trouble with a guard and gets himself thrown into a solitary cell. On the third day of his confinement, Joseph uses a small stone and a slingshot he has fashioned himself from pine twigs to ambush the guard who is bringing his evening meal. After Joseph knocks out the guard, he is able to procure the keys and unlock himself. He exchanges his own shabby clothing for the guard’s uniform and leaves the guard bound in the cell. As the prisoners are all being locked up for the night, Joseph, in his disguise as a guard, is able to make his way through the camp and line up with the other guards who are rotating off duty.
Although Joseph is Polish, he speaks German well enough to fool the officer who asks him if he has anything to report. Joseph is dismissed along with the rest of the guards and he is able to walk out of the gate in the fence that encloses the camp. As some of the guards make their way into the guardhouse to talk, one of them asks Joseph where he is going. Joseph answers, “Shangri La,” which is the name of the nightclub in the nearby village.
After leaving the prison camp, Joseph walks to the village of Zakyna. As he approaches, a drunken German soldier asks him for some cigarettes. In trying to avoid the soldier, Joseph ends up below the village, where a group of people are waiting for an approaching car. Joseph jumps behind the wall of snow made by a plough and realizes the car is making deliveries. As the luggage and other cargo is being unloaded, Joseph is forced to find different hiding spots and eventually ends up in one of the crates that has just been offloaded. Suddenly Joseph realizes the crate is moving and he is being transported across the valley on an aerial lift.
On the far side of the valley, the crates are being unloaded by an old Polish man. Joseph pretends to have a gun and orders the man not to say anything. Still disguised as a German guard, Joseph tells the man to take him to his home and not to let anyone over on the aerial lift. The man lives with his wife in a nearby house in the mountains. Once inside, Joseph reveals to the couple that the gun is really just a bar of chocolate. At that moment the alarm bell from the prison begins to ring. Joseph tells them that he is a Pole who has escaped and he is only pretending to be a guard. They agree to hide him and the next morning the old man returns to work at the lift.
Although the old man says he will be able to warn them if anyone is coming, Joseph and the old woman are surprised by two guards who are searching for the escapee. Joseph is able to hide in the chimney, which has a secret compartment, and remains safe even after one of the soldiers fires his gun up the chimney. After resting for a few weeks, Joseph is guided by the old man out of the mountains and begins his journey back to Warsaw.
After walking for over four weeks, Joseph returns to find that Warsaw has been completely ruined from the war. It takes him three days to find his old street, but nothing remains of his old...
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The following morning, Joseph returns to the site of his old house hoping to meet Jan again. Jan is there with his wooden box and his cat. Joseph tells him to not steal anything from him, as he has realized Jan is quite the little pickpocket. Joseph says he has decided to head for Switzerland and asks the boy if he knows the best way to find a train leaving Warsaw. Jan tells him he will either be caught and shot or freeze to death, but Joseph insists and Jan eventually takes him to a bend in the track where the trains slow down. Jan gives Joseph food he has stolen from the Nazi barracks and Joseph is able to board a goods train heading west. Jan walks back into town, thinking of the silver sword in his wooden box.
The story moves backward at this point to tell the reader about the plight of the Balicki children. On the night Margit is arrested by German soldiers, the children are locked in their rooms while their mother is taken. Edek, a member of the Boys’ Rifle Brigade, is able to shoot at the soldiers from his upstairs room, but the van with the soldiers and his mother drives away. Knowing the soldiers will return, Edek breaks down his bedroom door and frees his sisters, Ruth and Bronia. They are able to escape before the Nazis return and blow up their house. The three of them walk through the night until, in the opposite end of town, they find shelter in the bottom of a house ruined during the war.
The Balicki children are able to make a sort of home in the underground cellar. They are told by the Polish Council of Protection that their mother has been taken to Germany and will return after the war, although this seems more and more far fetched as the war continues. Edek finds most of the things they need for their new home by scavenging around town, but food is harder to come by. Edek occasionally finds work, but he cannot register for rations without risking being sent to a forced labor camp. He eventually begins stealing from the Nazi supply camps and becomes part of a group of youths who regularly raid and sell the German supplies. Meanwhile, Ruth decides to start a school for the younger children in the neighborhood, teaching them to read and telling them stories from the Old Testament.
As the weather becomes warmer, the children and many other displaced Warsaw residents make camp in the forests and fields outside of the city. Food is easier to come by and Ruth continues her teaching. Unfortunately, Edek is caught one night while smuggling food out of the city. He is arrested by the Germans, and Ruth and Bronia are forced to provide for themselves.
Two years go by after Edek's capture by the Nazis. Ruth and Bronia continue to live in Warsaw during the winter and in the woods outside of town during the summer. As the summer of 1944 approaches, the sisters begin to realize that the nature of the war is changing. The Nazis seem to be on the defensive and there are many Allied planes in the sky. Soviet forces are advancing on the city, issuing a call for the Poles to take up arms against the Germans.
In August, the Polish citizens of Warsaw begin to attack the Nazi forces inside the city and a ferocious battle ensues between the Poles and Germans. The Soviet troops receive an order from Stalin forbidding them from intervening in the battle, and the Poles are left to fight on without the promised help. Finally, Stalin allows his troops to march into the city and finish off the Germans, but at that point the city is almost completely destroyed.
In January of 1945 after the fighting is over, Ruth and Bronia return to the city. The cellar where they used to live is still intact, although it takes some work to get it back into a livable condition. Eventually, Ruth is able to start her school again, teaching sixteen children in the underground shelter. One day when the children are outside playing, they discover a young boy lying on the ground, apparently ill and very hungry. There is a rooster hovering around him, and the boy has a wooden box under his arm. Ruth takes the boy, along with his rooster and wooden box, into the cellar, where he is eventually able to tell them that his name is Jan.
As Jan recuperates, Ruth goes to the Russian command post to ask for supplies for her school and for help locating Edek. Although the officer in charge is not very helpful, Ruth is able to procure some basic supplies and her brother’s name is added to the list of missing people. A few days later, Ruth finds Jan attacking a Russian soldier outside the entrance to their cellar. She...
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Ruth, Bronia, and Jan, along with Jan’s chicken Jimpy, set out from Warsaw to try to find Edek at the transit camp in Posen. They fall in with a number of refugees who are all leaving Warsaw, traveling through ruins and abandoned fields and villages. Near the end of the first day, the children are able to get a ride in the back of a truck that takes them much farther than they would have been able to walk.
For the next few days they are unable to find any rides, but at the end of the fourth day they reach Posen. When they reach the camp, the secretary tells them there is no record of an Edek Balicki. Ruth is unsure of what to do until a man overhears her asking about Edek and tells her that he has just sent him to a...
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After nine days on the train, the Balicki children and Jan finally reach Berlin. Like Warsaw, the city has been largely destroyed by the bombing, but this does not bother the children, as they have grown used to such surroundings and feel good about their progress toward Switzerland. As they leave the train station, Jan, who is nonchalantly crossing the street, is nearly hit by a vehicle carrying a British officer. Eventually, the children find a place to stay at a transit camp in an old cinema, where groups of refugees are grouped according to their country of origin. One morning, a wave of panic runs through the crowded cinema. It turns out that a chimpanzee who escaped from the zoo was trying to get into the building. Jan is...
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As the children continue their journey, things seem to be going well except that Edek’s health is not improving. Ruth decides that they should take a break from traveling for a week and allow Edek to rest. They find a peaceful meadow where they make their camp and Edek and Bronia rest while Jan and Ruth find temporary work in a nearby village. Jan starts to return at the end of each day with all kinds of food in strange tins, which Edek realizes he must be stealing from somewhere. The next day, Edek follows Jan and watches as he meets a strange youth. After talking briefly, Jan continues to the nearby train track. Jan climbs the ramp to the tower that is used to signal to the train and begins to cut several wires. Edek follows...
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The children end up staying at the farm with Kurt Wolff and his wife for quite a while, primarily because the Burgomaster, who is in charge of the region, has been rounding up all suspected refugees and making them return to their home country. The children are careful to always stay out of sight when strangers are approaching and, at first, are able to avoid notice. One day, Jan asks about the photos of the two young men in the Wolffs’ living room. Frau Wolff tells him and the other children that the photos are of her and her husband’s children, both of whom died during the war. She tells Jan that although they were German soldiers, he would have liked them, especially Rudolf, because they both loved animals. The family dog,...
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At first, as the children navigate the river, things seem to be going well. The moon is hidden behind some clouds, and they hope they can pass by the village unnoticed. As they near the village, however, the moon comes out enough for them to see a field that has a number of trucks in it, and Ruth realizes these are the trucks that are meant to take refugees home. At the same time, the children are forced to navigate under a bridge where the river’s current seems particularly strong. Edek and Jan pass under the bridge without incident, but Ruth and Bronia turn broadside against the bridge and become stuck. An American solider notices them and jumps in the river and grabs Ruth’s paddle to try to stop them from going downstream....
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Joe is able to get the children ensconced at the refugee camp on the shores of Lake Constance, despite all the confusion that exists because the zone is being transferred from American control to French. Although the camp directors want to keep Edek in a separate part of the camp, Ruth is able to procure lodging in a tent very close to Edek’s quarters. The Swiss authorities, however, are not allowing any refugees to cross the border without proof that they have family or other business in the country. Ruth sends a letter to Farmer Wolff to try to get the silver sword, which she thinks will help their claim, and the superintendent of the camp sends a letter to the International Tracing Service (ITS), the agency in charge of...
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As the summer of 1946 draws to an end, the Balicki family is living in a small Swiss village called Appenzell. Appenzell is an international children’s village, founded after the war to help find a home for the thousands of displaced children who lost their homes as a result of the war. Money from charities and individuals all over the country is put to use, along with volunteer labor, to build houses and schools to allow the children of the village to live and be educated in peace and comfort. Joseph Balicki and his wife are chosen to be the heads of the Polish house, as each group of children is arranged according to country of origin.
Bronia has matured into a talented artist and, despite all the hardships of the...
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