The experiences of the Balicki family reflect those of many others caught up in the war, although their story admittedly ends unusually happily. The novel focuses briefly on Joseph Balicki, the father, but for the most part concentrates on the children and Jan, an orphan whom they make part of their family. Joseph Balicki is an idealistic, courageous, and resourceful man. The headmaster of a school, he is sent to prison for defying Nazi rule soon after the Germans take over Poland. His ingenuity helps him escape from the prison camp where he has been held for two years, and after making his way back to Warsaw, he hunts for his missing wife and children. During his search he encounters Jan, a ragged orphan boy. Joseph gives Jan the only trace of his home he has found, a silver paper knife shaped like a sword, on the condition that if Jan ever meets Joseph's missing wife and children he will tell them that Joseph has gone to Switzerland. Joseph's sympathy and willingness to trust Jan win over the usually reclusive boy. This meeting between Joseph and Jan sets up not only the plot line but also one of the novel's major themes: the need for mutual trust and its ability to heal the emotional ravages of war.
Ruth, Joseph's oldest daughter and the novel's main character, embodies the virtues necessary to survive the war with hope and dignity. At first bewildered by the difficulties of survival in Warsaw without her parents, she matures as she takes on the role of substitute mother—first to her siblings, and eventually to a larger group of children who come to a school she starts. When her students find Jan lying sick out in the street, Ruth takes him under her care; and love and discipline slowly begin to heal Jan's psychological wounds. Emotionally and morally strong, she inspires Jan's love and trust.
The war has twisted Jan's perceptions of human relationships, making him distrustful, hateful, and angry. Soldiers particularly symbolize the suffering he has undergone, and he fears and hates them all so much that he can make no distinction between soldiers of different armies. Because animals cannot betray trust the way humans do, they are the only creatures Jan can find any affection for until Joseph, and then Ruth, break through the barriers he has set up. Jan becomes fiercely loyal to Ruth, who tries to instill in him some of the moral values the war has extinguished. As Jan becomes more attached to Ruth and Bronia, he becomes less self-centered. He continues to behave dishonestly toward other people, but his intentions improve. At the climax of the novel Jan finally puts the needs of others before his own. In the midst of a storm, he must choose between going after the dog he has adopted and helping Ruth save Edek from drowning. By deciding to help Ruth and Edek, Jan breaks free of his self-imposed isolation and puts his trust in human ties and responsibilities. Like Ruth, he too begins to mature when he accepts responsibility for others. As love and trust take root, Jan abandons his habits of stealing and violence.
The children receive help during their trip from people of many nationalities, illustrating the book's themes of reconciliation and the deeply rooted bonds among civilized peoples. Serraillier demonstrates the willingness of the victorious Allies to work toward the restoration of Europe in his portraits of the Russian soldier, Ivan, who helps the children get started; the British officer who nearly runs over Jan but later saves the silver sword; the...
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American Captain Greenwood, who is lenient with Jan after the boy has broken the law; and the Polish-American G.I. Joe, who gives the children a lift to the border of Switzerland at the end of their journey. A less conventional and more touching episode is the children's experience with Herr and Frau Wolff, a German farmer and his wife whose son was killed in Warsaw fighting against the liberating Russian army. Jan has trouble connecting the couple that shows him so much kindness with the soldiers he has hated so much. This sympathetic portrait of the Germans is unusual for a World War II novel. It reflects Serraillier's commitment to showing that civilians on all sides of the conflict suffered, and that all people ought to work together in peace to repair the damage done by the war. This belief is illustrated by the building of the international children's village at the end of the novel.