Joseph Balicki, the school headmaster of a Polish school in Warsaw, was arrested by the Gestapo in early 1940 and taken away to a prison camp. His school had been taken over by the Nazis after the invasion of Poland, and he was forced to teach lessons entirely in German. Pictures of Adolf Hitler had been put up all over the school, and during a lesson Joseph had turned one of these pictures around to face the wall. Someone had reported this to the Nazis, and as a result he was taken from his house to the prison camp on a cold winter's night. He was in the prison for more than a year before escaping, after knocking out a guard who was bringing food to his cell and stealing the guard's uniform. He then decided to head to his hometown of Warsaw.
Even though Joseph was taken away, his wife (Margrit) and three children (Ruth aged nearly 13, Edek aged 11, and Bronia aged 3) were left behind to fend for themselves to survive.
After fleeing the prison, Joseph arrived at a house and took refuge with an elderly couple who lived there. They were at first confused by his Polish appearance and speech, combined with his Nazi uniform, but they accepted him as a friend after he explained what happened to him, and he showed them the prison number branded on his arm as proof. Shortly after his arrival, they heard the prison camp "escape bell" ringing in the distance, and he realised his escape had been discovered. Nazi soldiers arrived at the house searching for the escapee the next day, but Joseph hid up a chimney to avoid being captured or shot. Two German soldiers had entered the house and fired bullets up the chimney in a bid to find out if anyone was there, but they fled the house (fearful of ruining their uniforms) after dislodging a heap of soot. Joseph spent two more weeks in the house before deciding to return to Warsaw. The old man came with him for the first part of the journey, after which Joseph ventured on alone.
When Joseph returned to the ruins of his old house, he found a boy lying down half dead among the ruins with a cat. He was holding a paper knife – the Silver Sword – that was once a possession of Joseph's wife Margrit. Joseph allowed the boy (who introduced himself as Jan, a master pickpocket), to keep it if he returned the sandwich he had stolen from Joseph. Joseph told Jan that he was planning to track down his wife who would have tried to make her way to Switzerland, as she had family there, and asked Jan – if he ever saw Joseph's children – to tell them where he had gone. Jan helped Joseph find a goods train going towards Germany, on which Joseph made his escape.
On the night of Mrs. Balicki's disappearance, Nazi Stormtroopers had broken into the house and taken her away. Edek had fired shots at the retreating van in a bid to stop them from getting away. Ruth had admonished Edek for his folly and realised they had to escape, so the children climbed along the rooftops of the adjacent houses and watched from a distance as their house was blown up.
The three children then spent the winter living in the cellar of a bombed house on the other side of Warsaw, and the summer living in woodlands outside the city. Edek fell in with black market dealers, and regularly stole food and clothes for his sisters and all the other children living with them, until one evening he failed to return. Ruth eventually discovered that Edek had called at a house where the Nazis were searching for hoarded goods. They had then captured Edek as well as the house owner and set the house afire before driving away with their captives.
In 1944, Warsaw was liberated, but there was still no news of Edek's whereabouts or of the children's parents. Ruth and Bronia were still living in the city, in a new shelter, and one day Bronia found an older boy lying prone in the street. He introduced himself as Jan, and in his possession he had a wooden box.
Ruth befriended a Russian sentry called Ivan, who was stationed at a nearby control post and had been assigned as a liaison to the civilian population. He gave her various supplies and became a good friend. He eventually managed to find out that Edek was in Posen, having escaped from the prison camp where he had been held. Ruth, Bronia, and Jan made their way to the Posen and eventually found Edek at a refugee feeding station; he was suffering from tuberculosis.
Once the three siblings reunited, they travelled by train to Berlin, intent on finding their parents. They arrived in the city during May 1945, shortly after the end of the Second World War in Europe and the suicide of Adolf Hitler. They arrived at a refugee camp, but Jan soon went missing in pursuit of an escaped chimpanzee, which had managed to flee from the zoo. Jan and the chimpanzee became best friends. He also befriended a British army officer named Mark, who wrote a letter to his aunt about the chimpanzee and its antics. Jan eventually returned to the others, and along with Ruth he obtained a temporary job.
As the children made their way through Germany, Edek whose health was steadily worsening with tuberculosis, was arrested while following Jan – who had been stealing food from several American trains bringing supplies to the troops. Both boys were prosecuted by the military tribunal, but Edek was cleared of any crimes whilst Jan led a spirited defence, wherein he pointed out that certain American troops were equally guilty of stealing from the conquered Germans. Nonetheless, Jan was sentenced to a week's detention. Upon his release, the children continued south and were taken in by a Bavarian farmer named Kurt. All of the children were put to work on the farm except Edek, who assisted the farmer's wife with light chores.
A burgomaster, who was doing his rounds, crashed his car outside the farm. Edek volunteered to help him fix the damage, but Bronia asked a question in Polish, betraying the children's identity. The burgomaster later told Kurt of a recent edict that all foreign nationals and refugees were to be returned to their country of origin, so the children were to be returned to Poland.
To avoid sending the children back, Kurt helped the children escape on canoes, and Jan hid Kurt's pet dog in his canoe. The children, intent on reaching the River Danube, paddled along the Falkenberg River and overcame a series of hazards, including an encounter with a soldier who fired a few rounds at Ruth and Bronia.
After their canoe journey, Jan noticed that the Silver Sword had gone missing; he believed it was back at Kurt's house. This news caused Edek's condition to take a turn for the worse. Jan and the dog went missing, and an American G.I. lorry driver, named Joe Wolski, gave the children a lift in their quest to find Jan. He joked that a hyena and a bear were in the back of his truck, but when he opened the back of the truck, Jan and the dog, Ludwig, were inside.
The children then met a superintendent, who told them he had received messages from their father. The superintendent had received a letter from Kurt, who had also sent the Silver Sword with the letter, knowing the children had to go through him to get to Switzerland.
The final adventure, a crossing of Lake Constance, proved to be the most dangerous as a terrible storm whipped up and capsized their boat. Edek almost drowned, because he was too weak to swim, but Jan was able to save the Balicki children. Finally, the children were reunited with their parents and reintroduced Jan to their father. Jan's record is sent to the authorities, but his parents were never traced, and the Balickis granted his request to adopt him.
In 1946, the Balickis were put in charge of a Polish House in an International Children's Village, in Switzerland. Bronia developed a talent for art and drew numerous pictures of war scenes; Edek spent two years recovering from his tuberculosis and went on to become an engineer; Jan got a new Jewish cat named Arlo, mended his thieving ways, and was regularly called upon to care for sick animals; and Ruth became a teacher. After marrying a Frenchman, Ruth was put in charge of the French House in the village, in the early 1950s.