Chapter 13: The Hand
Edek, Ruth, Bronia, and Jan travel on a crowded rescue train to Berlin. It is cold and jolts them, but Jan says it is better than other trains he’s traveled on.
Ruth remembers how firm they were with the authorities in terms of letting Edek travel. They hadn’t wanted him to leave, but the welfare officer, Mrs. Borowicz, saw the determined look in the boy’s eye and knew he’d make it to his father.
Ruth looks over at Edek. He is sixteen now and looks very different. His cheeks are “pinched and hollow, his eyes as unnaturally bright as Jan’s had once been, and he kept coughing” (81). As for Jan, he has been very good-tempered even though Jimpy was killed, but Ruth wonders if he will have trouble with Edek there.
In the evening the train stops so people can stretch their legs and gather wood for a fire. Then comes the time of stories and songs. People tell fairy tales and stories of escaping from the Nazis. When Edek says he has a tale to rival those, the refugees make way for the children to come closer to the fire.
Edek begins by explaining that he was caught for smuggling and sent to a farm in Germany. Slaves came from all over Europe. The work was hard; he tried to run away, but was always caught. When the war turned against the Nazis, he hid under a train’s cattle wagon and held on.
Jan interrupts and says Edek could not have held on. He persists enough that Edek has to seize his ears and tell him to wait and listen so he can prove it.
Edek continues, and speaks of the monotonous view lying on his stomach. He was dizzy, bumped up and down, splashed, and eventually frozen into ice. Finally, the train crossed the frontier into Poland and Edek cried out. He was released and thawed out.
The refugees listening are stunned. Later, after everyone is asleep, Ruth asks if that really happened. Edek solemnly says it did. Ruth says that nothing like that will ever happen again.
Chapter 14: The City of the Lost
By the end of May the train reaches Berlin, now ruined and desolate. The children are hopeful, though hungry. Jan cheerfully shows them a loaf of bread he had nicked, but he runs into the street and is almost hit by a British officer; later they will meet again.
At the transit camp the children eat more, but the conditions are far from ideal: there is no electricity, and old mattresses cover the floor. However, this is their home while they are in Berlin, and it is warm, dry, and comfortable.
It is initially very quiet and orderly, but one day, panicked shrieks sound near the entrance. Everyone is confused and there is a tumult by the door. Someone announces frantically that a chimpanzee escaped from the zoo.
People gather around and someone holds out a newspaper explaining that Bistro the chimpanzee escaped from the zoo. He boarded a train, was chased by police, and continued to give officers the slip. He is described as intelligent, once docile but disturbed by the bombing, and very fond of cigarettes. He is now melancholy and perhaps violent.
The children look around and do not see Jan.
Chapter 15: Jan Finds a New Pal
A British officer is sitting in his room and writing to his wife; it is the very same officer who almost knocked Jan over.
He begins his letter about being in Berlin to meet the Russians, but explains that something very strange has happened: a chimpanzee attacked him. He was in his jeep with his driver when someone grabbed the cigarette out of his mouth. He saw an ugly and broad chimpanzee holding the cigarette. The two men leap out of the car and watch as the chimpanzee jumps around the jeep, annoyed at the chain on his neck and the fact that he’d accidentally swallowed the cigarette.
The officer decided to step in, but his partner Jim was frightened. Suddenly a young boy stepped out of the crowd. He was Polish and his name was Jan, and even though the officer shouted at him to stop, he walked right up to the animal, said hello, and handed it cigarettes and matches. Bistro held out his hand for Jan to shake, and sat down in the backseat to smoke.
The officer thought this was his chance and stepped forward, but the ape screamed and flung a wheel brace at him. He then threw a whole toolbox, and the officer ran away in fright. When he looked back he saw the boy holding up a stick above Bistro. Bistro was cowering as the boy scolded him.
Bistro got up and moved forward to bite Jan’s finger. The stunned officer only watched, but Jan did not flinch. This began a friendship between the animal and the boy, and Jan led Bistro down the street by his chain. Bistro was not angry about the chain, but looked rather prideful.
The officer noticed Jan’s wooden box and small silver sword and gave them back to him. Jan eagerly looked at its contents and happily concluded that everything he expected was there. The officer invited Jan to dinner at his lodgings, and he surprisingly showed up with three other Polish children. He learned all about them and their quest to find their parents. He found Edek brave and smart but suffering, and was quite taken by the adorable Bronia.
The officer concludes his letter with a postscript saying the landlady Frau Schmidt woke him up to tell him silver was missing, but he hardly cared since “these Germans! They spend five years looting Europe and then come crying to you in the middle of the night because someone’s pinched a jam spoon!” (98). However, the missing silver was found; the officer assumes Ruth told Jan to put it back.
Chapter 16: The Russian Zone
The family takes the Potsdam Road and sing gaily along their way. They cross the Elbe but are waylaid by a great multitude of Russian soldiers near Rosslau. It is crowded and chaotic, with Mercedes car horns blaring. The cars carry hundreds of looted items and are followed by lorries with banners proclaiming, “We welcome the liberating army!” The amount of people passing is stunning, and Bronia wonders if it is the whole world.
Jan sees a cart with straw on it and jumps on, but the rest of the children cannot make it. They find one of their own, but are anxious because they cannot locate Jan. Thankfully, that night, the whole caravan stops and Jan reunites with the others.
During this journey, food proves difficult to find. The money Jan got for finding the chimp had run out, as had the ration cards the officer gave them. They visit UNRRA food kitchens, transit camps, and friendly villages.
Finally, the children reach the edge of the Russian zone and cross over easily. Now in the Thuringian forest, they hear they’ve crossed over into the American zone.
Chapter 17: The Signal
As the journey continues, Edek’s condition worsens. He grows slower and weaker, and Ruth decides he must rest for a week. They find a lovely spot in a meadow near a stream and set up camp. Jan finds food, and Ruth and Edek wonder if he is stealing from the American depot. Edek decides he must find out, and without telling Ruth, he slips away to follow Jan.
First Jan does work on a farm, but he slips out before his day is done. Edek follows him and sees him meet up with another youth. He then sees Jan shimmy up a railroad signal ramp and ponders if the lad is really train-wrecking now. He runs over to Jan and asks what he is doing, but Jan swears at him and tells him to leave. The signal light blinks green that a train is coming, and Jan begins to scream for Edek to leave.
Edek hears the train and watches Jan trying to use a wrench and wire cutters. He thinks there will be an accident, so he starts to climb. Unfortunately, both he and the ramp are weak and it is an arduous, dangerous climb.
Jan passes Edek, his face red and furious. Jan turns the signal to red, and the train begins to brake. It screams its shrill whistle and clanks to a stop. Smoke billows in the air; when it clears, Jan is gone, but an American military policeman is pointing a revolver at Edek.
Chapter 18: Captain Greenwood
Captain Greenwood of the American Army of Occupation is 42 but greying, a former lawyer, and a just man. He is puzzled by Edek Balicki, who is clearly ill and does not seem the type to prank and provoke. Edek will name no others, however, and the trial is proceeding quickly. A corporal whispers to Greenwood that Ruth, Bronia, and Jan are there. The children and an interpreter are shown in, and Ruth pushes Jan forward. Jan confesses his actions, but will not reveal much else. He claims Ruth is his guardian now. When Jan tries to dart away, Ruth informs Greenwood that the boy is afraid of soldiers, and if the guards would leave, he’d be more amenable. Greenwood sends them away, asks the boy to stand up, and is surprised when he does. Now there is only an interpreter, the lieutenant, the judge, and the children.
The Captain inquires about Jan stopping the trains, and Jan says he wanted to stop the food trucks. He was part of a gang, but was not a train robber. Sometimes the robbers gave him food, but he did not do the robbing.
The Captain tells him he is stealing American food, not Nazi food, and gently asks if he thinks that it is sensible to rob his own people. Tears course down Jan’s face, and he states fiercely that he needs to feed Edek, who is ill, and will always steal for all of them when they are hungry. In lieu of an apology, all he can force out is “I speak with respect, sir” (115), which brings a smile to the Captain’s lips.
Greenwood reminds Jan of the commandment not to steal, but the boy replies that the commandment does not work. Greenwood then pronounces Edek not guilty and Jan guilty, with a fine of 200 marks and seven days in jail. Ruth says they cannot pay the fine because they are saving up for shoes for Edek. Jan is led away.
Later, Captain Greenwood reviews the day’s cases and finds himself still troubled by Jan’s. Even though the boy was punished, this was a problem whose surface he had barely scratched. The boy would no doubt steal again, and Ruth could do little to stop him. That is what five years of war and hard living does to a person.
These chapters reveal a great deal about the chaos following the end of the Second World War. Even though readers are following four specific children, they garner insights into what things were like for a wide variety of Europe’s displaced and devastated. First, the whole of Europe seems to be on the move; Bronia’s sweetly childish comment that the whole world was marching is not so off the mark. Ben Shepherd, a historian, told NPR, “at the end of World War II, there were some 11 million people in Germany alone who were foreigners. They were slave laborers. They were volunteer workers, prisoners of war and Holocaust survivors. The Germans who had lived in Eastern Europe were being expelled from Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary. Jews who'd been in the Soviet Union during the second World War were coming across into Western Germany, hoping to get to Palestine or to the United States. And finally, it became apparent that of these 11 million people in Germany, about a million of them didn't want to go back home to Eastern Europe because they didn't want to live under the Soviets. So this was the making of the crisis in 1945.” Another related issue is the lack of food and other basic necessities. Many people starved, died of exposure or other illnesses, and toiled just to survive. There is help, though: the children benefit from transit camps, friendly villagers, soldiers, and more along their journey. If it were not for the larger community’s help, they and their parents would have no doubt perished.
Another reality of the immediate postwar era is the confusion regarding the occupying powers. It is not just Russians the children have to deal with: they also come into contact with British and American soldiers. Jan’s confusion regarding the differences between soldiers (also evidenced in later chapters with Farmer Wolff’s son) is understandable. To him and many others, all soldiers are potentially hostile figures. Those in charge by virtue of their profession tend to not have as nuanced a view on what surviving during and after the war requires.
That very observation lays the foundation for one of the most fascinating and morally complex episodes in the narrative. Edek assumes Jan is up to no good and when he follows him, he thinks he observes the younger boy wrecking trains. This is not exactly correct, for Jan is part of a smuggling ring and procures food for the family in this manner. The rectitudinous Captain Greenwood questions Jan, asking him “Why do you go in for stealing when you can get plenty to eat in the food kitchens?” (114.) Jan retorts that it is the only way to live; and, given what we know from Serrallier’s narrative thus far, that certainly seems to be the case.
There just is not enough food to feed four young people, and Jan’s stealing cannot be reduced to “a habit, a bad habit” (114). Jan states firmly that “Edek is ill, and we are all hungry. I shall always steal if they are hungry” (114). Greenwood lectures the boy, “When I was your age, Jan, I was brought up on the ten commandments. Maybe they’re out of fashion now. One of them is ‘Thou shalt not steal’—ever heard of it?” (115.) Jan’s succinct response is “It doesn’t work” (115). Greenwood can only say that everything will break down if people don’t follow that rule, which leaves interesting questions to ponder. When is it okay to steal, if it ever is?
Another moral question within this conversation of Jan and Greenwood’s is whether or not it is okay to essentially take revenge. Jan avers, “The Nazis stole everything from our country and left us with nothing…Now it is our turn to steal from them” (114). It is certainly hard to argue with Jan, and the Nazis are particularly monstrous enemies. There is more complexity here, though, for Greenwood tells Jan he was actually taking away food from the refugees; furthermore, “an eye for an eye” can be a dangerous code of ethics. Again, like the Captain at the end of the chapter, Serraillier leaves reader with much to mull over.