The introduction of my edition of The Silver Sword says it is a beloved British children’s book that has not been out of print since it was published in 1956. When I began to read it, the names of the characters seemed vaguely familiar, and when I read that it was published in the US as Escape from Warsaw, I realized that I too had read it as a child.
Joseph Balicki is taken away from his family in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation of World War II for the crime of turning Hitler’s picture to the wall during a scripture lesson. He eventually manages to escape from prison and make his way back to Warsaw, only to find his house destroyed, his wife imprisoned, and his children missing.
Since the first days of the war, the family planned that if they ever got separated, they would meet in Switzerland at his wife’s parents’ house. Joseph decides to head for Switzerland, but first he befriends a street urchin named Jan. Joseph gives Jan a trifle belonging to his wife, a silver sword, and asks him if he ever meets his children to tell them to go to Switzerland.
The novel flashes back to when the Balicki’s mother was arrested. After the arrest, Ruth, Edek, and Bronia take to the streets and live through the war in cellars or in the woods outside the city. Edek is taken away to a German labor camp. Finally, at the end of the war, Ruth meets Jan and decides to make the trip to Switzerland. But first, she and Bronia, and Jan, for he comes too, must travel to Germany to find Edek.
The story goes quickly, narrated in a simple manner that does not focus much on emotion or characterization. Serrailler was cognizant of the sensibilities of children and also wanted, in the postwar years, to focus on reconciliation, so there are good people among all the nationalities the children encounter. He tries to show the horror and destruction of war without being too violent.
Perhaps Serailler was unaware that the Russians waited outside of Warsaw hoping that the Polish resistance would be completely wiped out by the Nazis. In any case, he did not express at all how much the Poles feared the arrival of the Russians. The story is probably not going to be very satisfying for an adult to read, from this standpoint and that of the style, but I remember being riveted by it as a child.