The German Nazis committed many atrocities in Poland, and three different heinous actions are perpetrated on the Balicki family alone; Joseph Balicki is arrested and thrown into a camp for doing nothing more than turning a portrait of Adolf Hitler to the wall. Despite the fact that three children would be left parentless, the Germans took Margrit Balicki to work in a slave camp, subsequently setting fire to the family home believing the children to be inside. They were actually well known for setting fire to homes with families still living in them. The fact that so many orphaned children were living on the streets in Warsaw is also a testament to the barbaric way in which the Nazis cared nothing for the people in the cities they have invaded. After the family is reunited, it is apparent that Margrit has had a very hard time at the labor camp, as her hair has turned white; Edek, too, has suffered enormously.
Hope is a theme throughout the novel and it is the underlying factor that keeps the children alive in the most difficult of circumstances. They hope they will be reunited with their parents; Ruth and Bronia hope to find their brother; and the journey to Switzerland is made in hope of a better life, and of being with their parents again. Even their new life is inspired by hope for a better day.
Family is a constant theme in the novel, and even the people affected by meeting the children are reminded of their own family. Everything that happens in the novel is driven by family. Joseph escapes from his imprisonment to go and find his wife and children. Ruth is wise beyond her years, acts as a mother to her siblings, and is determined to keep them together. When they meet Kurt Wolff and his wife, the couple wants to adopt the children even though they know they are intent on finding their real parents, the Wolffs identify with Edek and Jan because they had sons themselves.
The Goodness of People
Despite the fact that the German Nazis are clearly depicted as evil in the text, Serraillier ultimately seems to believe in the essential goodness of people. Along both Joseph’s and the children’s journey are many people who step in to help. The old man and his wife, Frau Wolff and his wife, Ivan the sentry, and Joe Wolski all selflessly give up their time and resources to help the Balickis; they occasionally even put their own lives in danger. The fact that people are willing to help even at a cost to themselves restores faith in humanity after the war decimated it.
Morality during Wartime
The book gently raises a few interesting questions about whether or not it is morally acceptable to steal or flout other laws in order to survive. Edek is a smuggler and Jan is a consummate thief, and authorities apprehend both of them and make them pay for their actions. Jan firmly states that he will always steal in order to feed his family and that the commandment “thou shall not steal” simply does not work. Given what we know of the Balicki children’s struggles, it is hard not to agree with Jan. It can be argued that Serraillier also agrees, and that he believes human life is more important than arbitrary adherence to rules.
There are certainly people who get in the Balicki children’s way. The Burgomaster is the most prominent example, but there are also soldiers, well-meaning doctors, and law enforcement officials who cause problems for them. However, it is Nature that is arguably the more powerful and potentially perilous force during the journey to Switzerland. Cold winters, rushing rivers, and terrifying freak storms plague the children, testing their will and fortitude. This makes their journey and struggles seem even more epic, more universal; it is as if they were explorers, pioneers, etc., battling the forces of Nature to make it home.
The Trauma of War
Serraillier depicts the horrors of war in his novel in a thoughtful and approachable way. He shows how: families are broken up and children are orphaned; homes and cities are destroyed; children are forced to grow up well before they ought to; the bare necessities of life like food and shelter are lacking; illness is rampant; life is confusing and difficult and frustrating; and psychological traumas due to all of this suffering may take years to heal or never completely vanish. Serraillier's characters are strong and smart and plucky, but they still endure things beyond most of our comprehension.
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.