The Silver Sword realistically presents the problems of war as seen through the eyes of a Polish family torn apart by World War II. The novel's main characters include three children—Ruth, Edek, and Bronia Balicki—who are left to live as best they can in the streets of Warsaw when their father is sent to a prison camp and their mother is taken away to do forced labor in Germany. Serraillier explores the meaning of courage, unselfishness, loyalty, and honesty as the children try to survive in a world made brutal by war. Violence is never depicted graphically, however, and more than half the novel takes place immediately after the war. The hardships the children endure arise from the deprivations war imposes on all members of their society. The feelings of hatred that result from the war must be overcome in order to produce a society in which people from once-hostile countries can live together in peace.
Serraillier stresses that peaceful societies must be founded upon love and trust and demonstrates this theme most concretely in the relationship between Ruth, the model of "courage, self-sacrifice, and greatness of heart," and Jan, an orphan who has learned that he can survive and remain self-sufficient only by stealing. Ruth's love gradually brings Jan from a state of selfishness to one of loyalty and self-sacrifice. The Silver Sword is a story of hope and love in which the children undertake a journey of discovery in search of their...
(The entire section is 257 words.)
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Chapter 1 Summary
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.
(The entire section is 418 words.)
Chapters 2-4 Summary
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 schoolhouse or home. A woman from his old neighborhood tells him the Nazis took his wife away to work in Germany. She also tells him that one of his children shot at the soldiers who were taking Margrit away and, in retaliation, the Nazis burned the house and the children have not been seen since.
Joseph knows that if his wife can escape from forced labor in Germany she will try to meet him in Switzerland, but he doesn’t want to leave Warsaw while there is still hope of finding his...
(The entire section is 563 words.)
Chapters 5-7 Summary
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,...
(The entire section is 476 words.)
Chapters 8-10 Summary
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 orders him to stop and discovers that the soldier is Ivan, the sentry from the command post. Ivan brings some chocolate for the children and supplies for the school. He also tells Ruth that he has been able to find out that Edek is being held at a transit camp in Posen. As Jan comes into the cellar, he realizes his wooden box has been broken in the fight. As he is lamenting his loss, Ruth realizes that the silver sword in the box is the very one that her father had given her mother years before....
(The entire section is 571 words.)
Chapters 11-13 Summary
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 nearby camp in Warthe which is set aside for people suffering from tuberculosis. When the children reach the camp in Warthe, they find out that Edek refused to stay and has run off somewhere.
Ruth decides that they should go to Kolina, a village a few miles north of Posen where other refuges tell them that a relief organization has set up a large field kitchen and is providing free food. When they reach Kolina, they wait in line and eventually are given bowls of soup and bits of bread to eat. As Jan tries to find a place to sit, he trips, spilling his soup and bread all over the ground. The crowd, which had remained orderly and peaceful until then, suddenly turns into a mob and everyone begins rushing the food tables. After the chaos is over, Jan sees that Jimpy’s neck has been broken in the struggle. Ruth, however, is ecstatic. During the struggle she inadvertently linked hands with a stranger; as the fighting ends, she realizes that she is holding hands with her brother Edek.
Although the trains in Posen do not run on a regular schedule, the Balicki children and Jan, along with many other refugees, are able to find a train to Berlin. As they travel, the refugees tell stories to pass the time. Eventually Edek begins to tell his story about what happened to him after he was arrested for stealing food from the Nazis. After working in a German labor camp for a couple of years, he was able to escape by hiding underneath an eastbound train and holding onto the underside.
Although Jan does not believe him, Edek convinces the other refugees by describing his experience in vivid detail. He tells them that at one point the train ran through a huge puddle and he ended up being frozen to the...
(The entire section is 522 words.)
Chapters 14-16 Summary
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 very excited until he hears that the chimpanzee has been chased away. They hear someone reading a newspaper article that describes how the chimpanzee, who is highly intelligent and friendly, escaped from the zoo. At the same moment, Ruth realizes that Jan has also disappeared.
It turns out that Jan has decided that he will find and rescue the chimpanzee, a plan which takes him several days to accomplish. The chimpanzee appears one day and jumps into a British Army vehicle—the same one, in fact, that had nearly hit Jan on the street. The chimpanzee is jumping up and down and scaring the people around him, in part because they are afraid that he will send the vehicle careening down the street. At that moment, Jan appears and calls the chimp by its name, Bistro, and offers it a cigarette, a habit the chimp picked up at the zoo. Jan gets Bistro under control, befriends him, and turns him over to the zoo keeper. The officer in charge of the vehicle invites Jan back to his lodgings for dinner. Jan shows up, along with the Balicki siblings, and the officer feeds them and provides them with supplies and food to help them as they continue their journey to Switzerland.
The children head south from Berlin. Their travels take them through the Russian zone of occupied Germany, where they see convoy after convoy of Russian soldiers and support staff. With the money Jan got as a reward for finding the chimp, and the supplies given to them by the British officer, the Balicki children and Jan are able to make their way south without too much trouble, especially as they are able to find a few rides in empty carts and trucks that are part of the military caravan. Eventually, the children cross into the American zone,...
(The entire section is 449 words.)
Chapters 17-19 Summary
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 him and demands to know what he is doing, but Jan yells at him to leave. Edek is afraid that Jan is trying to wreck the train and, when Jan scurries away, Edek stays on top of the signal tower trying to flag down the train. In actuality, Jan has simply changed the signal to red to get the train to stop. At that point, Edek hears someone yelling at him from below and sees an American military policeman aiming a gun at him and ordering him to come down.
Edek is charged by the American military with being part of a gang that has recently been robbing trains in the area. Edek admits he was trying to stop that train, but not that he was part of any robbery attempt. As he is trying to explain his story to the judge, Captain Greenwood, Ruth suddenly appears along with Bronia and Jan. She forces a reluctant Jan to confess that he is to blame. He admits to helping the gang stop trains, but says that he was only given food in return. Captain Greenwood understands why he did it, but he tries to convince Jan to see why his actions are wrong. Jan apologizes and says that he will listen to Ruth in the future. The captain gives Jan a choice between paying a fine and spending seven days in jail. Without any money to pay the fine, Jan accepts the detention sentence.
A few weeks later, as the children make their way through Bavaria, they spend the night inside a farmer’s barn. The next morning, the famer discovers them sleeping in his haystack and threatens to turn them in to the burgomaster, who is supposed to be in charge of sending all Polish refuges back to Poland. The children plead with him and say they will gladly work for him to pay off the fact that they slept in his barn without permission. The farmer...
(The entire section is 506 words.)
Chapters 20-22 Summary
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, Ludwig, responds to Jan in the same way that he did to Rudolf. The next day, a passing car blows out a tire, and Edek, concerned that someone might be hurt, runs out to help. The man in the car is fine and Edek helps him to change the tire although he realizes that the man must be the Burgomaster. Since Edek speaks German, he is not too worried, but Jan and Bronia show up and Bronia speaks to Edek in Polish. Surprisingly, the Burgomaster appears not to notice and thanks them for their help before driving on down the road.
As Farmer Wolff is washing his face in the kitchen, the Burgomaster suddenly appears and begins to talk. Eventually, he tells the farmer that he knows there are refugees hiding on the farm. The following day is the last day for all refugees to be deported, and the Burgomaster says that the children must be sent back to Poland. Farmer Wolff tells him that the children are going to Switzerland because their parents are there and that they are not simply drifters. Although the Burgomaster is sympathetic, he says that there is nothing that can be done and that the Swiss are letting very few people across the border. Before leaving, he says that a truck will come the next day to pick up the children and warns them not to try to escape.
The farmer tries to think of a way for the children to continue to Switzerland. Finally, he decides that the best plan is for them to take his old canoes and to escape down the river. Both Edek and Ruth have done some canoeing before, and although the plan is risky, they agree that it is the best option. Early the next morning, the farmer and his wife bid them farewell, and the children set off down the river, with Ruth and Bronia in one canoe and Edek...
(The entire section is 508 words.)
Chapters 23-25 Summary
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. Ruth lets go of the paddle and the soldier falls into the river. Ruth and Bronia’s canoe finally makes it under the bridge and they escape, although without a paddle, they are at the mercy of the current. Eventually, they both fall asleep and the canoe is essentially destroyed when it runs over a rock. They are able to make it to the bank and begin to walk downstream, hoping that they find Edek and Jan. Before they have gone very far, Ruth sees Ludwig and suddenly Edek and Jan are laughing and greeting her and Bronia.
For several days, they continue toward Switzerland, mostly walking but getting a few rides along the way as well. When they are about eighty miles from Switzerland, Ruth realizes that Edek’s health is rapidly deteriorating. They stop to rest and Jan realizes that he must have left the silver sword at the Wolffs’ farm in Bavaria. He decides to go back to get it, but Ruth is, at first, able to talk him out of it. The next morning, however, both Jan and Ludwig are gone. Ruth decides not to look for him, as getting Edek to Switzerland is her highest priority. Edek is barely able to walk and, as the day goes on, is unable to go any farther. Ruth flags down a passing truck driven by an American soldier. She speaks to him in Polish and, surprisingly, he answers back in Polish. He is an American of Polish descent and asks Ruth what he can do to help.
The soldier, whose name is Joe Wolski, is quite friendly and agrees to take them all the way to the Swiss border at Lake Constance, where there is a Red Cross camp. The Balicki children pile into the front of the truck and talk with Joe as they drive. At one point, Bronia says she hears a yelp and asks what is in the back of the truck. Joe...
(The entire section is 636 words.)
Chapters 26-28 Summary
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 locating displaced people. After a few weeks have gone by, the superintendent calls Ruth into his office and asks her to describe the silver sword. Once she has described it, the superintendent tells her that he has both the sword, which Farmer Wolff sent to the ITS as soon as he realized it was left behind, and another letter that her father had sent to the ITS describing the family’s situation. The superintendent tells her that he has been able to connect all the different information and, furthermore, that he has a telegram from her father saying that he has sent all the permits to get them into Switzerland and they can take the boat over within a couple of days. Ruth runs to tell the rest of the children and they dance and laugh in celebration.
On the morning they are supposed to take the boat into Switzerland, the children go down to the shore of the lake to wait. They end up crossing a small creek and walking through the woods to a small headland with a view of the lake, except for Edek, who decides to stay by the shore and rest by a small boat that is drawn up on the bank. As the other children are walking, they notice that dark storm clouds are approaching. Suddenly, a huge downpour starts. Jan and Bronia and Ruth turn around to try to find Edek, but the creek they crossed has turned into a raging river. Ruth sees the boat that Edek had been sitting by out on the lake and realizes that Edek must have been washed away. Bronia sees a small rowboat that has drifted onto the shore and she and Ruth try to commandeer it. Jan helps at first but becomes distracted when Ludwig runs away. Ruth becomes exasperated and tells Jan that he cares only about his animals. Finally, Jan reaches a decision and is forced to...
(The entire section is 604 words.)
Chapter 29 Summary
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 war years, is a very happy and contented child. Edek continues to struggle with his health after the war and has to go to a sanatorium for eighteen months to recuperate before returning to live with the family. The combination of his stay at the sanatorium and the clean mountain air helps him to return to full health, and he is able to go to Zurich to study to be an engineer. Jan is adopted into the Balicki family, as no record of his previous family is ever found by the International Tracing Service. After the war, he has a lot of trouble settling down into normal life and is frequently causing trouble and getting into fights. Ruth realizes that Jan is well behaved only when he is allowed to be around animals, and she begins to take him to the nearby farms. Soon, Jan is recognized as one of the most capable people around when it comes to tending and healing animals and eventually becomes a sort of unofficial veterinarian for the village.
After the war, Ruth has a hard time finding her place in the world, even though she did such an amazing job of handling so many responsibilities when her parents were absent. Although she wants to be a teacher, she refuses to go to the university because she simply cannot bring herself to leave her newfound home. Eventually, however, this phase passes, and in 1947, she goes to Zurich and studies for her teaching degree. After completing her degree, she marries another teacher. He was originally French but, like Ruth, lived in Appenzell after the war. The two of them return to the village to be the houseparents of the French house. And, at the Polish house, Margrit Balicki still holds on to her precious silver sword.
(The entire section is 431 words.)