Monday, March 4, 2013

Book Review: Escape from Warsaw (The Silver Sword)

by Ian Serraillier, originally published 1956 in England as The Silver Sword.  Published in the U.S. as Escape from Warsaw.

Escape from Warsaw is a children's war story, and written less than a decade after the end of WWII.  This lends a certain immediacy to the story which is, I think, offset for modern readers by the somewhat distancing style.  We are accustomed nowadays to children's books depicting war, suffering, and despair with the same gritty realism that we (and the kids) see on the evening news.  Oddly, in this period so soon after so many children had lived through events most of us can't even imagine, few writers chose to show the bitter despair, death, and suffering in quite such a cinematic fashion.  I have to state right here that this is neither criticism or praise, merely observation.  Writing styles change, and my recent bout of reading classic children's books gleaned from the pages of 1001 Children's Books You Must Read Before You Grow Up has made that abundantly clear to me.  We don't dress like we did in 1956, either (for which I, addicted as I am to blue jeans, t-shirts, and sweats, and very grateful).  In part, I wonder if Serraillier felt no need to describe in detail what too many had so recently lived through.

The story spans the years of the war, being the account of how the war went for the Balicki family of Warsaw.  For most of the book we follow the adventures of the children, Ruth (13 in 1940), Edek (11) and Bronia (3).  But the story opens, not with them, but with several chapters in which their father is taken by the Nazis, locked in a camp, and escapes and makes his way back to Warsaw.  By this time it is 1942, as far as I can make out.

When Joseph Balicki arrives in Warsaw, he finds his home destroyed, his wife taken to labor in Germany, and is told that his children are surely dead, as the Germans blew up the house after taking Mrs. Balicki.  Despite weeks of desperate searching, he is unable to find any trace of them, but refuses to believe they are dead.  In the first of a series of coincidences that admittedly strain credulity, he encounters a young orphan, a boy of perhaps 10 or 11 named Jan, and gives him a token--the silver sword of the original title--and a message for the children, in case he should ever meet them.  The message is that he has gone on to Switzerland, to his wife's family.  One thing that I found jarring here was that he was able to inquire through official channels, despite being an escaped prisoner.  It's not clear who was running the Polish Council for Protection to which he turns (presumably Poles, not Germans), but it is hard to believe it would have been safe.

We then turn to the children, beginning on the night their mother is taken, and move rather quickly through about two years (? dates and the passage of time get a bit fuzzy, which I have to say bothers me--I like to know exactly when, where and how).  The children make a home in the ruins of their city.  Edek, now 12 or 13 or so, supports the girls with small jobs and smuggling, and Ruth starts something of a school among the many, many orphaned/abandoned children.  The hardship of this time is presented matter-of-factly, without harrowing the feelings (unless you stop and think too much about all those homeless children with no one to look after them).  Still more oddly, the fact that Edek is eventually captured and sent to a labor camp, leaving Ruth and Bronia to struggle on until the liberation of Warsaw by the Russians, is rather off-handedly presented.

Roughly the second half of the book is taken up by the reconstruction of the family.  First, Jan becomes part of the family by chance, and only later is the connection discovered.  He and the two girls then set out in search of Edek--and find him, again by chance (this is about the 3rd unbelievable coincidence).  A series of adventures and narrow escapes follows--even though the Germans are defeated, the occupying armies would prefer to put children somewhere safe, and keep refugees out of Switzerland.  In a final coincidence (yet presented in a fashion more believable than some of the others), the family is reunited on the Swiss border, and a happy ending is constructed for all.

I did find it interesting that the author didn't quite stop with the joyful reunion of the family, but includes a wrapping-up chapter that gives them a new home, and describes the challenges each of the four children faced in recovering from the war and re-entering a more normal life.  Each of the older children has significant issues to overcome (can you say PTSD?), but each eventually puts the war behind him or her and goes on to live a normal life--as did so many after the war.  One wonders what illnesses, stresses, and mental disorders it inflicted on them in later life, but that lies beyond the scope of the book.

I found the book an easy read, fairly gripping, and enjoyable.  Stylistically, as noted, it is dated, and may seem strange to today's children, but is not difficult at all.  My largest criticism is of the use of what seem to me unreasonable coincidences to lead to the happy ending.  The note at the beginning of the book states that the "characters are fictional, but the story is based upon fact."  It is not clear exactly what parts are fact--I have to assume it is factual in a rather general way, perhaps pulling the adventures of many refugees together to make for one glorious story.

I give the book 3.5 stars, down from 4 due to the outrageous-coincidence factor.  Still a good read, and a good introduction for young readers to the WWII era, though it would be better with maps.


  1. NO Christian Polish family (and the Balicki family does not appear to be Jewish, judging from their last name) would have named a female child "Ruth" - this Biblical name is not used in Poland at all (I'm not even sure if it was used by Polish Jews). That's the first glaring error in this book. Another thing: the Polish version of Joseph is "Jozef" with a dash above the o, pronounced: Joo-zeph. If the boy is called "Edek" and not "Eddie", then why "Joseph"?

    Even worse - the greater part of Warsaw wasn't destroyed until the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 (see: Life in occupied Warsaw in 1942-43 went on, pretty much, as in any other city occupied by the Germans - police hour, not much food, people getting arrested or shot, but also restaurants, trams etc. still functioning (after a fashion).

    Also, as far as I can see from this review, the novel makes no mention either about the Polish resistance movement or about the Warsaw Uprising.

    I'm Polish, and I've heard about this book but don't really want to read it- it seems to contain huge inaccuracies, unfortunately :(

  2. Agnieszka, thanks for dropping by and taking the time to comment. I have to say, I wondered about the names, since though I don't know any Polish, I know enough to know they wouldn't use "Joseph." I attribute some of the name issues to this being a British writer, as they have been historically unwilling to go out of their way to pronounce things as the locals do. I also wonder if he left the Jewishness/Christianity of the family a bit vague (I can't now remember if it is clear, and don't have the book to look at it) because even after WWII there was a lot of anti-semitism around.

    As for chronology, it is difficult to know if it is messed up, because the book treats time rather cavalierly. That was one of my frustrations (that and needing a map, as mentioned.

    Mostly, I think the issues with accuracy stem from the author focusing more on the adventure than the history, which is not really an excuse in my opinion. I'm sorry to hear that he took such liberties; it does detract from the value of the book, even as story, in my opinion.


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