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Written by Callie Labrador
Joseph is a Polish school teacher who is arrested by the Germans after he is seen turning Adolf Hitler's picture to face the wall in his classroom. He is a resourceful man and this trait seems to have passed to his children also. He is family-oriented and puts himself in great danger by escaping from the Nazi prison camp to get back to his family in Warsaw. He is single-minded and tenacious. It is his idea to tell Jan of his family that triggers their journey to Switzerland where Joseph has told Jan he will be.
Margrit is Joseph's wife and she is taken by the Germans to work as slave-labor. Conditions are hard there and although we do not hear about her experiences, at the end of the war her hair has turned white and her face is heavily lined. She is extremely loving and accepts Jan as one of her own children after they all arrive in Switzerland.
Ruth is the eldest of the Balicki children and after their mother is taken away she immediately assumes the role. She is firm, fair and authoritative and runs her family with an iron fist. She has an air of capability about her and the adults who see her in action all believe her to be a very special and unusual kind of person. Although she is frightened she does not show it and manages to keep her little sister Bronia's spirits up by telling stories and by remembering how much she likes to draw, thereby giving her something to focus on. She is a natural born teacher and children instinctively listen to her. After the war she seems to be trying to recapture her lost childhood by regressing emotionally and following her mother everywhere for fear of losing her again, but this soon wears off and she goes on to study at university in Zurich and becoming a teacher in her Swiss hometown.
Edek is the middle Balicki child but as the only boy feels a pressure to step into the role of provider and her protector. He is good at both of these, providing food by smuggling from German supplies and providing safe shelter in the woods by identifying the safest and driest area and next trees to use as shelter. Before the war he seems to have been physically strong but his time in prison camp leaves him weakened by tuberculosis and his health does not return until well after the war. He is a bold young man with little fear.
Bronia is the youngest Balicki child and is actually too young to remember life before the war. Because she was shielded from much by her siblings and was still a child at the end of the war, she was the one most easily able to adapt back to normal life again. Bronia loves to draw and is placed in a gifted program in Switzerland because of her talent as an artist.
Jan is a street child orphaned in the war and no amount of searching after the war manages to find any family members at all. He is quite wild and almost feral as a result of taking care of himself on the streets of Warsaw. He is talented and all the things that are illegal, such as fighting and pickpocketing. Jan is very combative and hates Germans and soldiers so it is likely that he saw his family taken away by the German military. He is oddly sentimental about seemingly worthless things, such as three dead fleas given to him by an escaped chimpanzee, and it is this love of acquiring and hoarding in his little wooden box that ultimately brings him together with the Balicki children and their quest to find their parents as Ruth recognizes the silver sword in his box from her house. Jan is not my h of a people person but has a special bond with animals, all of whom love him.
Ivan is a sentry at the Russian outpost in Warsaw. He has a soft spot for the children and is always bringing them supplies for the little a school Ruth runs, or things they might need for their journey, such as shoes for Bronia, or chocolate bars. Although Jan dislikes him at first Ivan is tolerant of Jan's combativeness and tries to reach him through fixing his broken box.
Kurt and Frau Wolff
The Wolff's are a kind couple who shelter the children en route to Switzerland and help them escape from the Burgomaster who is required to send them back to Poland. Their own son was killed in the war and they begin to look upon the children like their own. They ask Jan if he would like to live with them permanently and although he would he declines as he feels like one of the Balicki kids. Kurt Wolff comes up with the idea of the children using his son's old kayaks in order to escape. Through their kindness and ingenuity the Wolff's are instrumental in enabling the children to get to Switzerland.
Joe Wolski is an American soldier of Polish descent and because of this identifies with the children right away. He drives them to safety and assists in their being found by their father.
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