Chapter 25: Joe Wolski
As the truck rattles down the road, Ruth tells Joe about their quest, but privately worries more and more about Edek. Joe explains that he is with the Occupation. He was sent to Germany even though he couldn’t speak German, and his job was to rally people in favor of the occupation. Most of the time, though, people are too weary and melancholy to care.
Joe’s driving is a bit precarious, and it also becomes apparent there is something in the back of the truck; he tells the children there is nothing there but a couple of wild animals. When Bronia smiles that Jan would like that, Joe asks her who Jan is. They tell him, and Joe replies that he once knew a boy like Jan.
A bark sounds from the back, and Joe teasingly asks if they’d like to see the hyena. They pull over and, to their surprise, he reveals Ludwig and Jan. Jan is tied up so he will not escape, and he remains that way for the rest of the miles to the Red Cross camp at Lake Constance.
Across the water are the gloriously green hills of Switzerland and the majestic Alps behind them. Ruth gasps; she has never seen anything so incredible. She asks if Jan can come out, and Joe complies. Jan has no more fight in him, and when he sees the mountains he bursts into tears.
Chapter 26: News at Last
It is difficult to secure a place for the family at the camp, but the chaos and uncertainty there make it easier. Ruth gets a spot at the end of Edek’s sickbed.
Unfortunately the camp superintendent says they cannot cross into Switzerland because the Swiss authorities will not allow any more refugees in unless they have family to take care of them. Ruth writes to the farmer for the sword, hoping this will prove their identity.
The days drag on with no answer from the farmer and no improvement for Edek. Finally, one day, the superintendent calls Ruth in and asks her to describe the sword. When she does so in exacting detail, he beams that she is the luckiest girl in Europe. He produces the sword and a letter from the farmer. There is also a letter from her father saying he will come collect them on the 23rd.
As the superintendent comments that he wishes all cases could end as happily as hers, she runs out and gleefully informs the others. The family cries and exults together.
Chapter 27: The Storm
On the morning of the 23rd, Joseph Balicki calls, but the line goes dead before the children can ascertain what he said. Their enthusiasm is not dampened, though, and they eagerly wait on the lakeside for the Swiss boat, even though it is not due to arrive for hours. They barely notice the sky darkening and the air becoming heavier.
They decide to cross a small stream to the headland to see the coming ship better. Edek is out of breath and remains behind, which worries Ruth. The first raindrops begin to fall as they run across the shore to the headland. Suddenly, a tremendous clap of thunder sounds, and lightning flickers violently through the black clouds. This is the freak storm of 1945, a horrifying and memorable spectacle.
The sky looses its rain, stored up from the summer. It falls so hard that no one can see anything. Ruth grabs Bronia’s hand, and Jan scrambles for Ludwig’s collar. They try to return to Edek, but they end up lost. To their horror they see a new river coursing towards them toward the lake. This river sweeps detritus of all sorts past them—a dead sheep, oil cans, planks, trees, a canoe, and more.
Ruth sees where they left Edek, but he is no longer there, nor is the small boat she told him to take cover under if it rained. Ruth and Bronia also realize Jan is nowhere to be found, but Bronia soon observes him on a small embankment behind her. She calls and asks if he can see Edek, but he only cares for Ludwig.
Bronia then says she sees Edek’s boat on the waves. It is a tiny dark speck, and Ruth’s stomach plummets as she realizes Edek is in there.
An abandoned rowboat nears them on the dirt flooding river. Ruth reaches for it and succeeds in grabbing it with Jan’s help, but she curses him bitterly for caring more about his dog than people. She tells him to go to Ludwig, and that she and Bronia don’t need him.
Jan is torn. He sees Ludwig in the distance, but he realizes for the first time what he has in Ruth. This is the moment he begins to grow up: he leaves Ludwig and jumps in the boat.
Chapter 28: The Meeting
Ruth wakes to the sounds of voices but has no idea where she is. After a time she is suddenly smothered in hugs and kisses; to her shock, she realizes it is her father. He takes her to Bronia, who is fine, to Edek, who is pale but fine, and to the indomitable Jan.
Jan brags that he saved them all and found Edek’s boat. He sailed them to it, but Edek had fainted; so, Jan pulled him out. Joseph affectionately tells Jan to eat his food, and Ruth hugs him tight.
The surprises are not over, though. Ruth suddenly sees her mother, and, without words, runs to her. Though her hair is now white and there are deep lines in her face, Ruth sees nothing but happiness and deliverance.
Jan rues that he has lost all his treasures. He shares what the treasures in the box were: cats’ claws, a gold curtain ring, buttons from a German uniform, half a pen nib, an acorn, a stick of Russian shaving soap, Frau Wolff’s can opener, a silver teaspoon from the German woman’s house, Jimpy’s brightest feather, and three dead fleas from Bistro. When Ruth asks about the sword, he proudly pulls it out; if he’d lost that, he says, then none of these reunions would have happened. He hands it to Margrit and tells her that it was once his most precious treasure, but he will give it to her now, if she will be his mother.
Chapter 29: The New Beginning
In Appenzell, Switzerland, Danes, Swedes, Brits, Austrians, Germans, Italians, and the Swiss build an international children’s village. The children who were abandoned and orphaned now have a place to call their own and try to forget the misery of the war. Joseph and Margrit become house-father and house-mother in the Polish house. The family helps build their large, comfortable home, and settles in with sixteen Polish children.
The war was scarring to all. Bronia, the youngest, adapted to the postwar life most quickly. She was happy and a gifted artist. Edek took time to heal, and was even sent to a sanatorium. After six months in the open air, he was finally healthy enough to start studying to become an engineer. Jan took time to adapt to this secure and peaceful life, and behaved poorly even though Margrit treated him as her own. He fought and was rude often. Only Ruth could manage him, and she encouraged him to start working with neighboring farmers’ sick animals. Finally, even Jan grew up.
As for Ruth, who had taken on more responsibilities than a woman her age should have, she clung to her parents for a time and did not want to go out into the wider world. Finally, she went to study in Zurich for her degree, married, and had children of her own. She and her French husband became the house-parents at the French house in the children’s village.
In the Polish house Margrit keeps her proudest possession, the silver sword, in a velvet-lined drawer of her jewelry box.
The novel comes to a close with an extremely happy ending, one which many readers have found stretches the boundaries of plausibility. For instance: Joseph escaped from an impossible-to-escape-from prison and met a kind old man and his wife who nursed him to health. Edek was deathly ill, but survived. All the children survived the horrific storm. The children never encountered any thieves or worse people. Margrit is also somehow alive. The farmer had canoes in his attic, and lives by a river. So it goes without saying that readers of this novel do have to suspend their disbelief to an extent.
However, Serraillier is careful not to make the end of his novel too rosy. Both Joseph and Margrit are alive, but it is clear Margrit suffered terribly and has aged at a precipitous rate. Edek clings to health just barely, and only after he spends time in a sanatorium. Jan remains as feisty and independent as ever, which causes tension within the family. Ruth has perhaps the most interesting psychological response to being back with her family out of harm’s way. Serraillier writes that she had grown up too quickly and “she could not bring herself to leave [her parents]. She behaved like a young child, clinging to her mother and following her about everywhere. It seemed as if she were trying to recover the lost years of her childhood” (187). This regression is her manifestation of what can almost be deemed PTSD. Ruth’s struggles to survive and keep her family safe, the physical dangers she faced, and the emotional toll all of this took on her make her long for comfort, security, and an absolute disavowal of any sort of responsibility or autonomy.
The silver sword has finally, it seems, brought about the desired reunion of the family members. Jan proudly boasts, “If I’d lost the sword, we should never have found you again” (182). Just like Ruth mused when Jan made a comment about Edek dying and finding their parents becoming impossible due to the sword’s absence, it is possible for readers to wonder one last time if the silver sword was perhaps imbued with some sort of magic or luck. Of course, even if it is, that does not negate the perseverance, struggles, and courage of the Balicki children and Jan, but it’s hard to ignore that the sword ends up being the primary thing to help connect the children to their parents and bring about their reunion.
These last few chapters incorporate many of the same motifs and themes as the rest of the novel. First, there is the demoralizing nature of the bureaucratic and military apparatuses set up during the postwar period. The camp superintendent “would not allow the family to cross over to Switzerland. The Swiss authorities could take no more refugees unless there were relative in the country willing to be responsible for them. besides this, they needed some definite proof of identity before any arrangements could be started upon” (165). These rules objectively make sense, but are frustrating given what we know of the Balicki children’s journey. Second, despite this, there are always people who restore faith in humanity. Joe Wolski might be a poor driver and perhaps enjoys Jan’s discomfort a bit too much, but he is kind, friendly, and helpful: he drives the children to the camp, and helps secure a place for them there. He explains to them that he’s “here to fire folks with the spirit of occupation, to tell them they’ve all grown up the wrong way. but what’s the use? They’re so sick and tired they just stare at you. It’s not often you get a chance to help someone” (160).
A point to end on: Serraillier’s writing. First, Serraillier is arguably not a great writer, but he masters subtle moments of comic relief and emotion, as well as excellent plotting and creation of suspense. He employs semi-vague, foreshadowing, narrative comments such as “The family, as they laughed and danced for joy on the shore, thought [it was the end of the story]. They did not know that what was in some ways their most dangerous ordeal still lay ahead” (169). Especially for children’s literature, this is golden: it subverts expectations and fosters a sense of suspense and excitement, practically begging the reader to turn the page. This allows him to provide education and knowledge about WWII to children; it’s hard not to be engrossed in the tale of the plucky and stubborn Balicki children.