Monday, July 18, 2011

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

O to be in England…now.

The Imperial War Museum is running an exhibition until October 2011 called "Once Upon A Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children." It spotlights five works altogether: War Horse by Michael Morpurgo, Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden, The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall, The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, and Little Soldier by Bernard Ashley.

One of the books used for this exhibit is the classic story The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. It is the story of the Balicki family, Joseph and his Swiss wife Margrit and his daughter Ruth, 13, and Bronia, 3, and son, Edek, 11. In 1940, they are living in a Warsaw suburb in Poland during the Nazi occupation of that country, where Joseph is the headmaster in a primary school.

One day while teaching, Joseph turns a picture of Hitler so it faced the wall. His action is reported to the Nazi authorities by a student. Joseph is arrested and sent to a prison camp in Zakyna. He spends two years in the prison camp, ill but determined to escape, which he finally does manage to accomplish. Joseph spends 4½ weeks walking back to Warsaw, but when he arrives he discovers that his house has been destroyed, his wife has been arrested and sent to a work camp in Germany, and his children have survived but are no where to be found.

At the ruins of his home, Joseph finds a silver letter opener in the shape of a small sword. He also meets a young boy there carrying a wood box. Eventually he befriends the boy, Jan, who shows Joseph how and where to safely jump a train to Switzerland. Before he leaves, he gives the silver sword/letter opener to Jan and asks him to tell his children, should he run into them, that their father has gone to their grandparents in Switzerland to find their mother, and to follow him there. Jan puts the sword in his wooden box for safekeeping.

When their mother was arrested, Edek had secretly shot at one of the officers with a rifle, hitting him in the arm. Scared, the children decided to run away that night, over the rooftops of the adjoining buildings and just in the nick of time. As the children are running away, their house explodes – Nazi retaliation for the rifle shot. The children hide in a wood, surviving on the kindness of peasants and on Edek’s ability to smuggle. But one day Edek is caught and arrested. They hear nothing about him for two years, continuing to survive in the woods in summer and in Warsaw in winter.

In the summer of 1944, Ruth, now 15, and Bronia, now 5, hear that the Russians are pushing westward and are not far from Warsaw. This rumor turns out to be true and by January 1945, the Nazis are gone from Warsaw, but because of the fighting to regain it, so is Warsaw. At their former home, they find a very ill Jan. They nurse him back to health and are helped to survive by a kind Russian soldier, who also traces the whereabouts of Edek in Posen. But when they arrived in Posen, they learned Edek has TB and is in isolation. At the makeshift hospital for TB patients, they are told that he has just run away. Tired and hungry, they go to a refugee camp for food and rest, but when a brawl breaks out, the hand the pulls Ruth away from the fray is that of Edek. Together, the four children begin their journey to Switzerland in earnest by first taking a train to Berlin. By now, it is May, 1945 and the war over in Europe.

Their journey to Switzerland takes Ruth, Edek, Bronia and Jan isn’t easy. Edek’s TB gets progressively worse. Then Edek and Jan are caught stealing from the American troops in Germany, and Jan must do a week of detention. The children are taken in and cared for by a kindly farmer and his wife, but when they hear that all Polish people will be sent back to Poland, they are forced to make a middle of the night escape in some old canoes the farmer owns. All through their journey, the silver sword has been an inspiration to carry on and find their parents. But in their hasty escape, the silver sword gets left behind at the farm. It was their talisman and as long as they had it, they had good luck overcoming the obstacles they faced. Now it seems that their luck has run out. The canoe trip, which should have been easy, is not without hazards: Ruth and Bronia are shot at and one of the other canoes is destroyed. Later, they face a terrible storm while crossing Lake Constance, located in both Germany and Switzerland. Will they ever be reunited with their parents without the sword?

At the heart of this novel stands is the idea of family. The Balicki’s are is a warm, loving, supportive family, reason enough to motivate the children to find their parents. And the reason that the homeless, parentless Jan decides to stick with them. Like many people who lived through the war, the children find strength in themselves to endure, discovering that they can deal with all kinds of difficulties and hardships.

Throughout the novel, Serraillier juxtaposes the hatred and destructive nature of Nazism and the people who supported it against the kind and helpful people who rejected it, people who were willing to take a chance, even risking of arrest and death, to help the children

The Silver Sword was published in the United States under the name Escape from Warsaw, and is still available from Scholastic by that name. I prefer the original name, The Silver Sword since it has so much meaning the central characters in the story.

Although the novel was published in 1956, it remains a very exciting adventure for young readers and I highly recommend it.

The book is recommended from readers aged 12 and up.
This book was borrowed from the Juvenile Collection of the Hunter College Library.

Zoe at Playing by the Book has written an in-depth two part review with pictures of the exhibit "Once Upon A Wartime: Classic War Stories for Children." Be sure to take a look at it.

And if you are in London and get to the exhibit at the Imperial War Museum, you might want to also see the Winston Churchill’s Britain at War Experience. Not as fancy as the IWM, but a real experience. Simply take the Northern line from Elephant and Castle to London Bridge. The museum is located at 64-66 Tooley Street.
It is one among many of my favorite places in London (along with Pollock’s Toy Museum.)

This is book 10 of my British Books Challenge hosted by The Bookette

This is book 11 of my Forgotten Treasures Challenge hosted by Retroreduxs Reviews 


  1. My husband loved this book when he read it to our boys. I have yet to read it, but will bump it up on my TBR list after your review.

    1. it is a very nice book trust me

  2. This is one that has haunted me ever since I was a child...

  3. hopeinbrazil, I think you will understand why your husband loved it when you read it. It is really excellent.
    Charlotte, funny how books can stay with you like that. I have a few from my childhood, too.

  4. this book is absolutely full of excitment parts. the part i really liked was when ruth, edek and bronia met their parents again. it was such a great book, that i want to read it over and over again. this is my favourite book out of any other books i read! so i think ian serrallier is the best author ever!

  5. i Love this book and i think it is full of exciting part I LOVE U IAN

    1. I agree with you it is exciting . I am reading it in school for English

    2. I'm reading it in English too.

  6. This book is so interesting, it really shows us what it was like to be a child in the WW2 and what could happen to your family

  7. I really liked this book because it really shows us what it was to be a child in the WW2 and what would happen to family's

  8. This book is one of my best ever reading book because it has alot of emotional words that make you feel afraid while reading..hahhahaha.. still its the best.. please Ian write more of this type of book.

  9. A great book for everybody!!

  10. Brilliant book so much excitement

  11. I live this book I really love it, I read it in english and also I have finished it in a week. I loved it so much that my Mum is gonna get it for me