Chapter 1: The Escape
The Balicki family lives in Warsaw, Poland. Joseph is a headmaster of a primary school, and his wife, Margrit, tends to their three children: Edek (11), Ruth (14), and Bronia (3). In 1940 the Nazis are menacing the Poles, and Joseph is sent to a prison camp in the mountains of South Poland.
In the crowded camp, the men do what they can to stay warm. Few are strong enough to try to escape, but Joseph is determined. He is too ill during his first winter, and spends his time thinking of his family and his school, which the Nazis closed because someone reported that he had turned the picture of Hitler’s face to the wall.
He had tried to break away once before, and ended up in solitary confinement. He now tries harder to lay his plans. He knows he cannot cut the wire fence, so he decides to disguise himself as a guard. He gets himself landed in “the cooler,” a place for poorly behaved prisoners; on the third day there, when a guard brings him food, he knocks the guard out. He tries to get the keys off the guard and is lucky to see them on the floor next to the guard’s body. He unlocks his cell, dresses in the uniform, and heads out to the changing of the guard. He had memorized all the steps and orders, and tells someone who asks that he is going to Shangri-La, a nightclub where the soldiers unwind.
Joseph walks straight out, and does not look back.
Chapter 2: Journeys Through the Air
Joseph heads toward the village of Zaknya, a mile below the camp. He tries to avoid being spotted and dives under what looks like a cart without wheels. Someone bangs a heavy crate down on it, though, and he realizes that he is moving. He is in a roofless cage—an aerial luggage tram. He is very relieved that he is moving further and further away from his enemies. The cage creaks and shakes in the darkness.
He then wonders if his enemies will be up at the top as well, and positions himself to face the dark mountain.
Chapter 3: The Hiding-Place
When the cage stops, a flashlight illuminates Joseph’s face. Joseph is holding a large chunk of chocolate that appears like a gun in the dark; he says he has a revolver pointed, and if the person makes a sound, he will shoot. The voice swears in Polish, not German, so Joseph’s manner becomes gentler. He tells the man to unload the cage and to take him to where he lives.
The man obeys and takes Joseph to his chalet. There is an old woman sitting by a bright fire. Joseph explains why he is wearing the Nazi uniform, and shows them his number on his arm. They believe him, and bravely decide to let him stay. They give him a warm bed and tell him he can hide in the woodshed if guards come looking for him.
However, when German voices sound out the next morning there, is no time to run to the shed, so Joseph climbs into the chimney. He is almost discovered, but soot puffing out of the chimney leads the Germans to run away for fear of dirtying their uniforms.
Joseph remains for two weeks with the old couple, who treat him as a son. He eats well and feels at peace for the first time in a long while. He is often tempted to go outside, but knows he cannot expose himself.
When it is time to leave, the old man guides him for three days until they clear the precipitous mountains. They reach the edge of the snow line and Joseph is filled with happiness when he sees flowers. The old man blesses him and wishes him good fortune.
Chapter 4: The Silver Sword
Joseph walks for over a month to reach Warsaw. It is now a bleak, lonely, ruined place. People still live there, though, and do what they can to survive. The railway is the only lively place.
Joseph finds where he used to teach and live. A neighbor tells him the Nazis destroyed his school and his wife was sent to Germany as a foreign worker on the land. When he asks about his children, she says she knows nothing, but he thinks she is hiding something. Finally, she confesses that the night he was taken way, someone fired on the Nazi van from his house; about an hour later, the Nazis came and blew up the house. Joseph is shocked and horrified; all he can do is walk around, dazed.
He remains with the neighbor, Mrs. Krause, for a few days. She tells him to go find his wife, because the children are surely gone. Joseph cannot bear to leave.
One day while searching the rubble of his home, he finds a small silver sword that he’d given his wife for her birthday. Joseph notices a ragged little boy watching him. The boy is holding a kitten, and Joseph walks over and asks its name. The boy says the kitten has no name. He will not tell Joseph his own name.
The boy tells Joseph to give him the sword, because this pile is his. Joseph replies that it is his house. He decides to give the boy food, but finds that he has already pickpocketed a sandwich.
Joseph tells the boy about his children and how he is certain they are not dead. He tells him that he will give him the sword if he promises to tell the children, if he sees them, about their father and how he has gone to Switzerland where their grandparents live. The boy grabs the sword and does not reply. Joseph calls after him that he will tell him more tomorrow and he should meet him here. The boy does not reply.
Chapter 5: The Goods Train
Joseph is surprised that the boy keeps their appointment. He tells him his plan to jump a train to Switzerland; the boy matter-of-factly says that Joseph will be caught and shot, or else will freeze on the tracks. The boy says has seen these things happen, but he will show Joseph the bend where the trains slow. Joseph runs after him and wonders about this strange and extraordinary boy. They sit and watch the trains pass; Joseph hopes for tp find a goods train. He is flabbergasted to see that the boy has picked his pockets again, and is contentedly eating his food.
That evening they meet again, and the boy guides him to the back path so Nazi patrols will not see them. The boy is carrying many loaves of bread, and he gives a lot of them to Joseph, telling him he took them from the Nazi barracks.
They hide in an empty warehouse. It is chilly and drizzling. As they sit and wait for a goods train Joseph asks for the boy’s name and if he will come with him. The boy still does not give his name; he says he only has his cat and a little wooden box. He takes out the sword and says it will bring him luck because it is the only thing given to him: he did not steal it. He whispers that his name is Jan, but he does not give a surname.
After a long time, a goods train finally rumbles by; Joseph tells Jan to remember his promise, and that he will not forget him.
Joseph jumps on the train, but Jan does not see him. He watches the train’s red light fade away, and hears the shrill whistle a ways off. It is raining heavily and Jan is soaked. He tries to warm the cat, and clutches his wooden box with the silver sword inside very tightly.
Chapter 6: The Night of the Stormtroopers
The night Joseph was taken away was a snowy, cold one. All the children are asleep, Edek on the top floor and the girls below. Edek jumps up when he hears a noise outside, but his door is locked. He uses a trapdoor to the attic and climbs up there. His rifle from the Boys’ Rifle Brigade of Warsaw is hidden there.
Outside, he sees a van. Voices downstairs stop, and outside Edek can see Stormtroopers taking his mother to the van. When she is inside, he fires, hitting a soldier in the arm and puncturing a wheel. The van careens away swiftly.
Edek runs to his sisters’ room and busts it open. He tells them what he did; Ruth says that was silly, and they must get away. They barely have time to dress properly. They cannot go out the front door; the only way is the roof. They climb up the attic and out on the roof through a skylight. Edek warns tiny Bronia not to make a sound.
It is a terrifying couple of steps in the V between the chimney and the roof ridge. They slide into the ridge and cannot see what is going on below. All of the roof ridges in the area are connected, which is lucky: they would not have gotten away otherwise. They climb for about a hundred yards; then they hear a magnificent explosion. They see their house billow up into fire and smoke.
Edek calls for them to keep moving and they finally descend a twisted fire escape. They hurry far away from the fire. The pale dawn breaks and they shelter in a cellar of a bombed house.
The Silver Sword is certainly a children’s book. The prose is simple, the morals clear, the ending happy, and the horrors of war muted for the reading audience. However, there are aspects of the tale’s WWII context that cannot be made completely palatable for children. Readers will encounter: orphaned, starving children; ruined and bombed homes and cities; excesses of despair and anxiety; sickness; and palpable fear of a merciless enemy. Children may focus on the adventure and the journey, delighting in the reunion of the family, but adult readers will no doubt find the references to the war—occupation zones, Russian troops, Nazis, etc.—equally compelling. Serraillier was an educator and a firsthand observer of the war, so the novel’s veracity only heightens the power of the narrative itself.
In these beginning chapters, readers meet Joseph Balicki, the patriarch whose verve and courage were clearly passed down to his children. Joseph has a very dangerous job in German-occupied Poland, and when he turns a picture of Hitler to face the wall, he is carted off without warning. The Nazis often targeted educators, artists, poets, political activists, and other intellectuals because they tended to be more liberal and critical of the Nazi regime. Joseph’s bravery is clear here because he is no fool: he knew what could happen if he manifested an outward sign of discontent with the occupiers, but his conscience seemingly precluded him from complacently accepting this new reality. Ruth’s formation of her own school later on in the novel nods to Joseph’s understanding that education truly is power.
Joseph’s experiences in the concentration camp highlight the conditions the “undesirables” (according to the Nazis, these included Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the mentally or physically deformed, and the aforementioned artists and intellectuals) faced. Joseph’s conditions are actually much more bearable than many experienced during the war, but they are nevertheless awful. Serraillier writes that the camp is overcrowded and freezing, and that “at mealtimes [the prisoners] huddled round trestle tables to eat their cabbage and potato soup. It was the same for every meal. You could blow yourself out with it and never be satisfied. For drinking they had warm water with breadcrumbs in it—the Nazi guards called it coffee” (14). Thus, humiliation is quite apparent, as is the poor treatment. A few men tried to escape, but “those that were not caught and sent back died of exposure in the mountains” (15). Joseph endures solitary confinement and probably many other things Serraillier does not specifically list, such as beatings. What he does clearly indicate, though, is that Joseph, like his children, is a rarity: escape was not common, and success was even rarer.
Perhaps the most fascinating character in the novel is the orphan Jan. Even though Serraillier will give him a few moments of weakness, capitulation, and emotion in the text, Jan is remarkably consistent in terms of his behavior. He is unapologetically independent, irascible, bold, forthright, and stubborn. Readers never find out anything about his life before the war: there is no information about where he lived, what happened to his parents and siblings(?), what he saw and experienced, etc. It is as if he had two distinct lives: one before the war, and a new one after. The term “blank slate” is appropriate, though it connotes a more positive situation than Jan faces. Jan is truly alone, with only his various animal friends and his own pluck to accompany him. His own words about the Balicki children sum up his existence: “Warsaw is full of lost children…they’re dirty and starving and they all look alike” (34).
The silver sword of the book’s title appears in these early chapters. Joseph finds it in the rubble of his home and gives it to Jan on the condition that the boy promises to tell the Balicki children (if he sees them) where Joseph went. The silver sword is actually a letter opener, but that matters little to Jan, or even to the plot of the novel. For all intents and purposes, it is a sword, with all that a sword symbolizes. The sword is justice, strength, and power. Jan tells Joseph that the sword “is the best of my treasures…it will bring me luck. And it will bring you luck, because you gave it to me” (39). Jan will adhere to this belief for the entire journey, and readers will come to wonder if there is perhaps something reasonable about the boy’s near-mythic reverence for the object.