Chapter 19: The Bavarian Farmer
A farmer flings open the door to his barn, yelling for the person(s) inside to come out. Just when he thinks he might have been mistaken about what he heard, he detects a half-sob. He grabs a prong and starts poking around; a turnip flies out at his head.
Finally a voice says they give up, and the children emerge. Ruth states that they only spent the night there. The farmer is not placated, especially not when Jan throws another turnip at him. Ruth sharply rebukes the boy and apologizes.
The children explain their presence and their journey, and Edek assures him they will work for their lodging. The farmer gruffly accepts and says that if they do not do a good job, he will hand them over to the Burgomaster.
The children do not know this term, and the farmer explains. The Burgomaster is the man tasked by the Military Government with the job of rounding up all the Poles in the area to send them back to Poland; everyone is frightened of him and despises him for this. The children shudder, and Edek says that nothing on earth could send him back to Poland.
The farmer brings them for breakfast. His wife, Frau Wolff, is kind and plump. She lays out a great deal of victuals for the children, and Ruth thanks her heartily for the welcome.
The farmer sits down and begins eating. He tells them that he’s had many refugees come through the area and that some have been sent to work his land. Now they only send German prisoners of war, who are not ideal workers. Edek comments softly that he worked on a German farm, and the people were not decent like the farmer.
The farmer blusters angrily that he is not decent and will work them hard, but his wife chimes in and says Edek is too weak for the fields and will help her in the kitchen. The farmer sees her face and does not dispute her.
Chapter 20: The Burgomaster
Kurt Wolff’s farm is located in the Bavarian hills near the border of Czechoslovakia. Near his property are thick woods and the winding River Falken, and the village of Boding is a few miles downstream.
Boding is where the Burgomaster receives his orders. He is middle-aged, thin, a scientist, and a Social Democrat. He is “shrewd and conscientious in a rather stupid way” (124) and found his position as a go-between very difficult. The family sees him as the Devil himself and keeps clear. Farmer Wolff allows them to stay with him until the scare is over. Jan is extremely happy, especially because he has befriended a mangy dog named Ludwig. He is fiercely devoted to the creature and also works very hard on the farm.
One day the Burgomaster pays a surprise visit, but they hear his jeep beforehand and hide. After he leaves, Jan asks if the man looks like a young man in a photograph on the mantel. Ruth asks who the man is, and Frau Wolff explains that it was Hans, her son who was killed in Tobruk. Their other son Rudolf was also killed, fighting to keep the Russians out of Warsaw.
Jan peers at the photo and feels his old hatred of the Germans flood back to him. Bronia says she liked the soldiers because they gave her candy, but Jan corrects her: those were the Russians. Ruth interjects that some of the Germans were nice, especially in the early days of the war.
Jan looks at the farmer and his wife, detecting a note of sadness in the farmer’s eyes. He finally says they ought to be deadly enemies. Calmly, the farmer replies that their only enemy now is the Burgomaster. Frau Wolff tells Jan he would not have hated Rudolf because Rudolf loved Ludwig in the same way Jan does.
Bronia asks her if she’d like to be their mother. Frau Wolff sadly assents, but says they have their own mother and must find her. She asks if Jan wants to stay; he says he does, but that he has to go with Ruth. Besides, the sword will not let him stay.
When Frau Wolff asks what the sword is, Jan brings it out. They admire it, and the children tell the sword’s story. Jan puts it on the mantel near the photo of Rudolf, and it sparkles in the sun.
The next day, Jan and Edek are stacking hay when they see a jeep drive by swiftly, vanish behind a clump of trees, and then burst with a loud explosion. Edek decides to help, but Jan tells him fervently that they do not know who it is. Edek is already on his way over, and asks the man stumbling out of the crashed car in German if he is okay. They check the tire, and Edek volunteers to help change it. He forgets to be suspicious as he works diligently, but he eventually realizes this is the Burgomaster. He thinks to himself that his German is good enough to pass muster.
The Burgomaster asks if he works for Farmer Wolff, and remarks that he thought all the refugees had gone. At that moment, Ludwig shows up, and an acorn drops to Edek’s feet. Looking up, he sees Jan in a tree.
The Burgomaster asks where he came from, and Edek replies the North. He then asks about the lad in the tree. Edek lamely calls for his brother “Franz” to come down, and says he is dumb and deaf. Jan knows what is going on and acts stupid. He helps them with the wheel.
All is going well until Bronia runs up, speaking Polish. The Burgomaster appears not to notice, thanks the boys, and drives away.
They are relieved and Edek thinks they got away with it, though Jan is less sure.
Chapter 21: Orders
The farmer is in his kitchen calling for his wife when he turns around to see the Burgomaster. The man sighs that he envies the farmer’s peaceful life, especially since his own job is full of resistance and danger.
Farmer Wolff gruffly asks him to get to the point; the Burgomaster informs him he knows he is hiding Polish children, and they must go home. The farmer replies that they are going to Switzerland to look for their parents, but the Burgomaster only laughs and says he’s heard that before.
The farmer tells his wife to call for Edek. While they wait, the farmer hands the man the silver sword and explains that it is proof. The Burgomaster chuckles that it is not proof, and that there is no chance Mr. Balicki is alive.
Edek enters at that moment and stoutly announces that he knows his father is alive. The Burgomaster shakes the boy’s hand and thanks him for his help with the tire. Even when Edek comments that he does not hate all Germans though he did forced labor for them, the Burgomaster will not yield. He informs the children that a lorry will come the next morning and there is no point in trying to escape: the Americans may shoot on sight.
The farmer asks if they might have more time to secure a pass from the Swiss authorities, but the Burgomaster sternly says the time has been fixed, and not by him.
Chapter 22: The Farmer Hits on a Plan
The farmer spends the day wondering how he can help the children escape. Finally he alights on something, and gathers them in the attic. There are two canvas bags there with canoes that can be assembled. The children help him assemble the old, moldy canoes, and listen to his plan.
Farmer Wolff explains that they can go by river and leave just after dark. He warns them it will be dangerous, but holds back on just how bad the rapids are.
While the children rest for a few hours, the farmer works on repairing the paddles and cracked floorboards. Only three buoyancy balloons are salvageable. Frau Wolff patches up the waterproofs and packs up food.
It is eventually time to depart; the farmer, his wife, and the children head to the river in the dark of night. Jan sadly says to tell Ludwig goodbye, while the farmer warns them about not making careless mistakes. He tells them to travel fifty kilometers to the Danube, but to keep midstream and say nothing as they pass the local village.
The group exchanges fond goodbyes, and the children set off. Ruth and Bronia take one boat, and begin to notice something seems wrong with Edek and Jan’s boat. Jan looks under the waterproof and proclaims joyfully that Ludwig has hidden himself there.
Chapter 23: Dangerous Waters
The two canoes glide down the river. Ruth prays the moon will not shine out as they pass the village, but unfortunately it does. They notice tied-up lorries—no doubt the ones waiting to take away Polish refugees—and urge their canoes onward.
They rush under a bridge, and water begins to enter their canoes. A man on the bridge looks over and shouts. Another man—an American soldier—manages to grab Ruth’s paddle, but to his shock she lets go and he falls over. Without a paddle they are at the mercy of the current, and Jan and Edek are nowhere in sight.
Finally the girls float into a quieter part of the river, and the canoe bottom scrapes to a halt on the sand. They pull the canoe aside and wait on a large rock until daybreak. It is cold and lonely, but thankfully they find their lost paddle.
In the morning they set out once more. The river is swift, but Ruth is more confident than she expected to be under such circumstances. She only hopes Jan and Edek have had more luck.
After a time, the river is smooth and swift; the girls relax. The peace is short-lived, however, for a sharp rock tears the canvas of the canoe and it becomes unusable. Ruth sighs that they must walk now.
Finding a path through the green fields, they try to stick to the bank. To their delight, a half-eaten apple flies out and hits Ruth’s shoulder. She looks and sees Jan with a barking Ludwig. Edek and Jan explain that their troubles were similar. It is a warm and happy meeting, and none of them notices the lorries stuffed with unhappy refugees driving away.
Chapter 24: Missing
The children walk to Falkenburg, cross the Danube, and then take a lorry lift for some miles. They walk for three more days, and Ruth gaily announces there are only eighty mils left to Lake Constance.
Jan starts to look through his treasures but suddenly exclaims that his sword is missing. He realizes he left it at the farmer’s house, and runs off. Ruth barely notices because she is worried about Edek, who looks worse than ever and cannot stop coughing.
She has little patience for Jan when he comes back and announces he is going back for his sword; she tells him the Wolffs will guard it for him.
Ruth tells Jan to light a fire for them, and she forces herself to stay awake to watch Edek. Deep in her heart, she knows he will die if they do not get to Switzerland soon. Jan crawls over and quietly asks if he can have Edek’s shoes when he dies. Ruth replies he will not die, but Jan says matter-of-factly that, now that the sword is gone, they will not find their father. Ruth tries to comfort him and tells him to sleep, but eventually she cannot keep her own eyes open any longer.
In the morning Ruth discovers Jan and Ludwig are gone. Edek is too dazed to notice, but Bronia cheerfully says Jan can look after himself. It is difficult getting Edek to his feet; he looks like a sleepwalker.
The children anxiously await a cart to come by to give them a lift. Just when it seems that they are out of luck, a lorry with a tarpaulin roof comes by. Bronia makes a symbol, and it stops. She speaks to the driver in Polish, and to their surprise, it is an American G.I. who answers back in Polish.
He introduces himself as Joe Wolski. His parents were Polish, but he is from the States—his parents went there before the war. He asks what the trouble is.
The children’s journey becomes more and more perilous as they move closer to their end goal. They face rigid bureaucrats, rushing rivers, and Edek’s growing weakness and concomitant proximity to death. Like any Hero’s Journey narrative (this is not a perfect one in terms of Campbell’s stated characteristics, but it has the general outline), though, there are people to provide sustenance and succor along the way. The children would not have survived without the help of Ivan the sentry, Farmer Wolff, Frau Wolff, Joe Wolski, and all those who gave them food, medical treatment, and shelter. Serraillier certainly touts the individual’s courage and fortitude as important, but he also makes it clear that he thinks the community must help each other out in times of duress.
Serraillier has another lesson to impart, but this time it’s as much for readers as it is for Edek. The Burgomaster is a bureaucrat with the distasteful job of rounding up refugees who do not want to leave and sending them back home. One could argue he’s doing his job and there is legitimacy in the effort, but the tone with which Serraillier depicts the man is less than flattering. He appears to be nothing more than another one of those middling officials who cannot see that the world and the rules that govern it have changed, and that nuance, sympathy, and compassion are more necessary than rigid adherence to the rules. It is no wonder that the Burgomaster speaks enviously of the farmer’s job. However, sympathy for the Burgomaster is not easy to marshal, especially when the farmer suggests a pass from the Swiss authorities might be obtained and his response is a curt “the time limit has been fixed, and not by me” (137).
The aforementioned lesson comes from the fact that readers as well as Edek might expect that the boy’s behavior in helping the Burgomaster fix the tire will grant him the reprieve he is seeking. Indeed, the more Edek behaves kindly and generously, the more it seems likely that, of course, the man will be grateful for the boy’s help and simply look the other way. This conclusion is only exacerbated by Edek’s thoughtful and wise comments about the Germans: “I hate the Nazis who took Mother and Father away and blew up our home and destroyed our city. But all Germans are not like that” (135). Edek proves himself much more mature than, say, Jan, but all of that is to no avail. The Burgomaster thanks him for his help, but refuses to budge. The children will all be sent home, despite their protestations.
The lesson, then, is that behaving well and doing the right thing do not always bring about the desired results. Sometimes acting in an altruistic or moral fashion changes nothing: life is still cruel and unfair. The children learn that being good is something worth doing primarily because it is emotionally and intellectually fortifying, not because it gets them everything they want. It is a hard lesson but an important one, and readers no doubt also check their assumption that, because they care about these characters and they are “good” kids, good things simply have to happen for them.
Finally, one other thing of note in these chapters is Jan’s continuing assertion that there is something special about the sword beyond it being a gift and what brought him to Ruth. He ascribes to it almost magical characteristics, telling Frau Wolff he would stay with her but “the sword wouldn’t let me stay here, however much I wanted to” (128). After he discovers it is missing, he says Edek might die if he doesn’t have the sword, “And we’ll never find your father either. He gave me the sword and it’s our guide and lifeline. We can’t do without it” (155). Ruth struggles with this, and “he spoke with such certainty that she almost believed hum. It was true that, while they had the sword, fortune had been kind to them. and now Edek was more gravely ill than he ever had been” (155). It is interesting to keep these comments in mind; the story seems like straightforward historical fiction, but it may be the case Serraillier has injected a bit of magic into it.