Chapter 7: Winter and Summer Homes
The children make their winter home in the cellar. They try to find out where their mother is from the Polish Council of Protection, but all they can discover is that she was working the land in Germany.
They try to make their new home as comfortable as possible. Edek finds mattresses and curtains for sheets, and makes two rooms. It is hard to find food, but they visit soup kitchens and try to steal from the Nazis.
Edek is self-reliant and adapts to this new life well but Ruth has a harder time. She sees that Edek is cheerful since he is busy, and she knows she cannot leave all the practical details to him. She decides she can help Bronia draw, since that is what her little sister did before their new life.
Ruth then starts a school, and a handful of children start attending. The people at the soup kitchen give her a slate, chalk, and a pocket Bible. She is a born teacher, and the children are spellbound. They love the Old Testament stories best.
When summer comes, they leave the cellar and live in the woods outside the city. Edek creates a lean-to to keep out the rain. Life is healthier, and Ruth’s school grows again. Local peasants provide bountiful food and Edek takes up smuggling. He knows the penalties if he is caught—he would be sent off to Germany to work for the Nazis—but he persists because he is good at it.
One morning after a night of smuggling, Edek does not return. Ruth traces him to a village ten miles away and learns that people saw him taken off in a van. When she returns empty-handed to Bronia, Ruth knows that the situation is dire. Edek had been their lifeline, and now they must fend for themselves.
Chapter 8: The Newcomer
Two years pass with no news of Edek; it is now the summer of 1944. Ruth and Bronia see and hear changes, such as planes in the air frequently and bombing of the city in the distance. There are rumors that the Nazis are on the defensive, and a radio address asks Poles to take up arms.
General Bor leads his people to rise up against the German garrison. A bomb goes off at the Gestapo headquarters. The Polish Underground attacks, and the Nazis retaliate. Soviet troops retreat and leave the Poles to fight on their own. When General Bor radios for help from the British and Americans, they say they cannot help right now. Stalin also refuses, so the Poles are left on their own to fight to the bitter end.
Ruth learns what is going on when stragglers reach the woods. On October 2nd, the Poles run out of ammunition, and Warsaw broadcasts a plea for help. Stalin changes his mind and orders his troops in, and by January 1945 Warsaw is in Russian hands.
Winter arrives and forces Ruth, Bronia, and other Poles out of the woods back into the city. They are shocked to see their beloved city destroyed. There is little food, but thankfully some water remains.
Ruth and Bronia return to their cellar. It seems as if someone else had lived there for a while. Ruth patiently begins to repair the damage. She even begins her school again.
One sunny day, all the neighborhood children are playing an air-raid game. Bronia runs up to Ruth and tells her that there is a boy lying down in the street and he will not get up. Ruth walks over to the rubble and sees a boy with thin, pale cheeks. A mangy cock stands next to him. The boy could be anywhere from nine to thirteen years old. No one knows who he is, so Ruth asks for help bringing him to the cellar.
When the boy opens his eyes, he asks where Jimpy the cock is. Jimpy flies in a hole and lands by the boy. Ruth asks his name, but the boy snaps that he won’t tell her. She gives him soup. Another child runs in carrying his wooden box. Everyone wants to look in the box, but Ruth informs them that no one should touch it. The boy takes his box and smiles. He tells them his name is Jan.
Chapter 9: The Sentry
Jan slowly regains his health and makes his home with Ruth and Bronia. One day a Russian patrol passes by. Ruth walks over and asks the sentry to see his officer. The sentry rudely calls her a little girl and says the lieutenant cannot see her. Ruth brushes past him and stands before the lieutenant.
He comments that she is determined, and asks what she wants. She states that she wants food, blankets, clothes, and blank paper for her sixteen children. The lieutenant gasps, but Ruth explains that they are orphaned children in her school. She also asks for his help finding Edek.
The lieutenant shows her a thick folder of missing people, and says it is worthless because he can’t help. Ruth asks for the blank paper on the back. He laughs and says he will take her info.
The next day, she calls back and finds sugar, flour, and blankets. Ivan—the sentry—gently chides her that it is more than she deserves.
A week or so later, Ruth is preparing her birthday tea for all the children. Suddenly she hears a scuffle and runs out to see Jan attacking a soldier. Jimpy is squawking and pecking the man. Ruth demands Jan give her the knife and leave the soldier alone. The soldier is Ivan, and Ruth explains to the sulky Jan that Ivan is a Russian, not a German.
Ruth invites Ivan in and gives him a seat. He gives her a bar of chocolate and all the children divide it up. He then tells her they’ve located her brother Edek in a transit camp at Posen. He’d looked it up himself, he admits, and Ruth gives him a huge hug.
In the corner, Jan is crying, and they do not know why. He holds out his wooden box and says Ivan broke it when he rolled on it. Ivan says he will mend it, but Jan refuses. Ruth notices something on the ground and picks it up. It is her father’s silver sword. She begins to cry, and Ivan wonders why there are so many waterworks.
Chapter 10: More Help from Ivan
Bronia sleeps, but Ruth and Jan stay up late talking about Ruth's father. Jan cannot remember a lot, but he does recall the determined look on Joseph’s face, and that he was going to Switzerland.
The next morning, Ruth tells Ruth and Bronia that they are going to Switzerland to find Father and Mother. They will have to walk a good distance, but Ivan can give them shoes and they will take lorries. They will stop in Posen first. Jan decides to come; Ruth tells him she is glad, because they need him to protect them.
Ruth tells Ivan her plan; he says he will come by her place, but Jimpy needs to be tied up. Jan scowls but obeys. Ivan reaches to give them more chocolate, but sees that the scoundrel Jan has already picked his pocket. He also hands Jan a new box with his name on it. Jan refuses to say thank you, but Ruth forces him to. She will also not let him have shoes until he apologies. This takes a whole week, but Jan, with frozen, cut feet, finally goes to Ivan and says sorry, as he sobs. He gives Ivan a treasure from the box: a dead lizard.
Chapter 11: The Road to Posen
It is a bright, spring day when the children set out for Posen. They only carry food for a day, blankets, the box, the sword, and Jimpy. They follow another traveling family and turn onto the main road. All the refugees look dazed and haggard. Ruth feels pity, but is determined to find her family.
A lorry gives them a lift in the afternoon. They travel through the countryside and rest in a farm building that night. It is hard to find lorries from that point on, and the children and Jimpy are suffering.
When they reach a Russian-held control post, Ruth gives the secretary a paper with the records about Edek, but the woman can’t find anything. Another man overhears and says he sent Edek to the Warthe camp with the other T.B. cases. Even though everyone is tired, Ruth presses them on.
The camp is a mile or so down the road. They arrive at a gloomy, dim building. A man tells them he remembers Edek well, because he was a wild boy and ran away just that morning.
Chapter 12: The Hand
Ruth, Bronia, and Jan head to the village of Kolina, north of Posen, because there is a rumor that a large field kitchen recently arrived. Along with many other people, they arrive and are sorted into groups.
Ruth hears a cook saying the war is over: the Americans and Russians met at the Elbe.
They proceed down the line. Jan gets bread and soup, but accidentally trips. He drops his soup and Jimpy. Everything had been calm before then, but now the spell is broken. The starving children descend on the food. It is madness; the soldiers and workers can do nothing to stop the wild scrum.
Finally, order prevails, but Jimpy is dead. Jan is too shocked to register what happened. Bronia, thankfully, was not in the rush of children. As for Ruth, she was caught in the middle and pulled up by a hand. She looked to see whose hand it was, and saw that it was Edek’s.
The children are nothing if not self-reliant and steadfast. They have no parents, no home, and every day is a struggle. However, their tenacity and determination see them through these hard times; even adults who come into contact with them are forced to admit that their drive will help them far more than anything else.
What is also clear here is that morality can be bent if survival is on the line. The honorable Edek is involved in smuggling; Jan steals frequently, and physically attacks a soldier. Serraillier will explore these issues even more deeply as the novel continues, no doubt reminding readers of Jean Valjean’s plight in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
The only literary reference Serraillier explicitly makes is to the Bible. While this novel is not a deeply religious text, Ruth does read Bible stories to the children at her school. She sees that they prefer the Old Testament ones; this is no surprise, given the Old Testament's emphasis on the meek and suffering triumphing over incredible odds (this recalls slaves in America looking to the stories in Exodus of the chosen people pushed out of their ancestral homeland). The favorite was Daniel in the lions’ den, for Ruth “thought of it as the story of their own troubles. The lions were the cold and the hunger and the hardships of their life. if only they were patient and trustful like Daniel, they would be delivered from them” (49). One might surmise that the children were also drawn to the sufferings of Job, the fortitude of Ruth, and the travails of Jonah. Viewing things in a grand, metaphorical capacity no doubt provides Ruth with a feeling that what they are going through is part of a larger, divine plan: as long as they stay strong and moral, they will prevail.
Although this is not the sort of the novel that immediately screams “progressive gender norms,” that is certainly something that can be briefly discussed. On the one hand, Ruth is a typical young mid-20th-century woman in that she is a primarily nurturing force and is inclined towards womanly tasks such as tending the house and children, and starting a school. On the other hand, Ruth takes on a role that far exceeds what would be customary for young women of her time. She is the authority, dictating where the family goes and what they do. She controls Jan and looks after him and Bronia. She has to be fearless, strong, brave, and uncompromising, all traits commonly (and erroneously) associated primarily with men.
When it comes to Jan, Ruth takes on a role akin a big sister/mother. She sees Jan for who he is, strictly telling the other children not to bother him about his wooden box. She does not try to wholly change him, but does desire to make him a better person, scolding him when he is rude or thankless. His connection to her father only cements the importance of Jan in her life, and the relationship between the two of them will be one of the highlights of the text.
Finally, these chapters delve more into the war itself, providing a larger context for the children’s plight in Warsaw. 1944 was a crucial year. The Americans and British invaded Normandy and liberated France from the Nazis. The Pacific War continued, with American victories in the Marianas, Saipan, Guam, and the Leyte Gulf. The Americans begin intense aerial bombing of Germany and Japan; the Axis forces in Greece surrender; and German military leaders attempt, but fail, to kill Hitler. The Russians begin their move into the West, but are not immediately helpful to the Poles. A brief summary from the Holocaust Museum’s education initiative states, “With the approach of the Soviet army imminent, the AK [Armia Krajowa, or “home army”] launched an uprising in Warsaw against the German army on August 1, 1944. After 63 days of bitter fighting, the Germans quashed the insurrection. The Soviet army provided little assistance to the Poles. Nearly 250,000 Poles, most of them civilians, lost their lives. The Germans deported hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children to concentration camps. Many others were transported to the Reich for forced labor. Acting on Hitler's orders, German forces reduced the city to rubble, greatly extending the destruction begun during their suppression of the earlier armed uprising by Jewish fighters resisting deportation from the Warsaw ghetto in April 1943.” Serraillier’s commitment to historical accuracy makes this already compelling novel educationally relevant as well.