Joseph is a Polish school teacher who is arrested by the Germans after he is seen turning Adolf Hitler's picture to face the wall in his classroom. He is a resourceful and tenacious man, and his character seems to have passed to his children. He puts himself in great danger by escaping from the Nazi prison camp to get back to his family in Warsaw. It is his idea to tell Jan of his family, which triggers their journey to Switzerland, where Joseph has told Jan he will be.
Margrit is Joseph's wife, whom the Germans take as a slave laborer. Conditions are hard there, and although readers do not hear about her experiences, at the end of the war her hair has turned white and her face is heavily lined. She is extremely loving and accepts Jan as one of her own children after they all arrive in Switzerland.
Ruth is the eldest of the Balicki children, and after their mother is taken away, she immediately assumes the maternal role. She is firm, fair, and authoritative, and runs her family with an iron but loving fist. She has an air of capability about her, and the adults who see her in action all believe her to be a very special and unusual kind of person. Although she is frightened, she does not show it, and manages to keep her little sister Bronia's spirits up by telling stories and by remembering how much she likes to draw. She is a natural-born teacher and children instinctively listen to her. After the war she seems to be trying to recapture her lost childhood by regressing emotionally and following her mother everywhere for fear of losing her again. This soon wears off, however; she goes on to study at university in Zurich and becomes a teacher in her Swiss hometown.
Edek is the middle Balicki child. As the only boy, he feels a pressure to step into the role of provider and her protector. He is good at both of these, providing food by smuggling from German supplies and providing safe shelter in the woods. Before the war, he seems to have been physically strong, but his time in prison camp leaves him weakened by tuberculosis and his health does not return until well after the war. He is a bold young man with little fear.
Bronia is the youngest Balicki child and is actually too young to remember life before the war. Because she was shielded from much by her siblings and was still a child at the end of the war, she was the one most easily able to adapt back to normal life again. Bronia loves to draw, and is placed in a gifted program in Switzerland because of her talent as an artist.
Jan is a street child orphaned in the war. He is quite wild and almost feral as a result of taking care of himself on the streets of Warsaw. He is talented at all the things that are illegal, such as fighting and pickpocketing. Jan is very combative; he hates Germans and soldiers, so it is possible that he saw his family taken away by the German military. He is oddly sentimental about seemingly worthless things, such as three dead fleas given to him by an escaped chimpanzee. It is this love of acquiring and hoarding in his little wooden box that ultimately brings him together with the Balicki children and their quest to find their parents: Ruth recognizes the silver sword in his box from her house. Jan is not much of a people person, but he has a special bond with animals, all of whom love him, and with Ruth.
Ivan is a sentry at the Russian outpost in Warsaw. He has a soft spot for the children and is always bringing them supplies for the little school Ruth runs, or things they might need for their journey—such as shoes for Bronia, or chocolate bars. Although Jan dislikes him at first, Ivan is tolerant of Jan's combativeness and tries to reach him by fixing his broken box.
Kurt and Frau Wolff
The Wolffs are a kind couple who shelter the children en route to Switzerland and help them escape from the Burgomaster, who is required to send them back to Poland. Their own sons were killed in the war, and they begin to view the children as their own. They ask Jan if he would like to live with them permanently; although he would, he declines because he feels like one of the Balicki kids. Kurt Wolff comes up with the idea of the children using his son's old canoes in order to escape. Through their kindness and ingenuity, the Wolffs are instrumental in enabling the children to get to Switzerland.
Joe Wolski is an American soldier of Polish descent; because of this, he identifies with the children right away. He drives them to safety and assists in their being found by their father.
The Burgomaster is an official tasked with sending the Polish refugees back to their homeland. He is tall, thin, and a Social Democrat. He prides himself on his rigid adherence to the rules, even though he knows they can be difficult for people. He envies the farmer's peaceful life and farm.
The Old Man and Old Woman
A Polish couple who shelters and takes care of Joseph after he escapes from prison.
The Silver Sword Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Silver Sword is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.