Book review

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier (1956)

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.

What can I read next?

Here's another one about a child travelling alone across Europe. It's by Anne Holm:

If you like the idea of children looking after each other, you could have a look at this one by Peter Dickinson:

Or possibly this one by Louis Sachar:

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