Ian Serraillier •
The Silver Sword
(also published as Escape from Warsaw) •
“This is the story of a Polish family, and of what happened to them during the Second World War and immediately afterward.” The Silver Sword made a deep impression on me as a child, and rereading it now I can see why. The author presents the hardships of cold, hunger, illness, and separation in a way that doesn’t induce nightmares in young readers, but stays vividly in the memory. The language is direct and unsentimental; the short chapters command interest.
Ruth, Edek, and Bronia are left to fend for themselves after their parents are carried off by the Storm Troopers and their house is blown up. All three exhibit astonishing resilience, sheltering in a bombed-out basement in winter and under a tree in the countryside in summer. Edek scrounges food and fuel and becomes adept at smuggling butter. Fourteen-year-old Ruth organizes a school amid the rubble, teaching other street children to read and write. Little Bronia covers the crumbling walls with charcoal sketches.
Despite the misery and terror of wartime, friendships take root. A Russian sentry gives them chocolate and shoes appropriated from the Red Army’s supplies. The three children join forces with a thieving urchin whose prize possession is a silver paper knife. A Bavarian farmer and his wife treat them with exceptional kindness, although their countries have so lately been enemies.
On learning that their father has escaped from prison camp, the children set off to follow him to Switzerland. On foot. Alone. Over the war-ravaged countryside. They nearly die in the attempt, but the book ends with a reunited family and hope for the next generation.
Although the characters are fictional, Serraillier based the incidents on actual events and eyewitness stories, making this a valuable glimpse into history as well as a dramatic, engrossing read.