There are many acts of bravery in this book. Give an example of one of these acts. Why does it stand out to you as brave?
When Joseph Balicki escapes, a couple hides him. They would be punished severely if he were found on their property. Hiding a prisoner was punishable by anything from imprisonment to death by firing squad, and there was also always a threat of the Nazis burning down a home. By helping Joseph and hiding him, they saved his life at considerable threat to their own.
How do you think Jan came to be alone on the streets of Warsaw?
Jan is a very angry and aggressive boy, who thinks with his fists and who has clearly been surviving on the streets long enough to learn how to be a very successful thief. He has a very bad reaction to any soldier, but specifically to German soldiers, so it is possible that his parents were taken away by German soldiers. Because no family of his is found after the war ends, it seems even more likely that his parents were killed.
What does the silver sword represent to each of the characters?
To Joseph Balicki, the sword represents a cherished memory of when he gave it as a gift to his wife, and it now represents identification so that his children will know Jan really met him and that the message he gave him was genuine. To Jan, it is a good luck charm: he fears that, without it, they will not safely make it to Switzerland. To Ruth, it represents hope and the fact that her father escaped from the Nazis—hope that they will all be reunited, and faith in the fact that they will reach Switzerland in safety. Though the silver sword is a small object, it is nonetheless a powerful one.
Is the novel realistic? Why or why not? To what extent does its degree of realism matter to its story?
The novel is, in many ways, not entirely realistic. Both Joseph and Margrit survive. The children travel through multiple countries; they survive arrest, tuberculosis, lack of food, life in a cellar and the woods, travel by rushing river, a freak storm, the Burgomaster, and more. Their postwar life is almost idyllic. However, Serraillier does imbue his story with a bit more nuance than that. The characters are clearly affected by their ordeals, and all is not perfect in the end. He also writes about Warsaw and the refugee crisis in an unsparing way that provides historical context about the war and its effects on people. All of the Balickis survive and reunite, but despite this improbable event, there is much in the story that brings WWII and its horrors to life.
Why do the children have difficulties settling into “normal” life after the war?
Although the novel’s end is certainly happy, Serraillier does not make it excessively so. He depicts the psychological difficulties the children face after years of toil, suffering, and deprivation. Jan “did not take easily to a peaceful and secure life. He was excitable and could not concentrate on one thing for long. He liked to play at firing squads and torture…He was always fighting…he was the biggest thief in the village” (186). Clearly, being on his own hardened Jan and made him nearly impervious to a settled existence. As for Ruth, she reverts to acting like a 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). Edek barely survives his illness, and has to stay in a sanatorium for a time. Thus, illness, anxiety, and bad behavior are common effects of the children’s trauma.