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.