First published 1956
This is the story of what happened to a Polish family during World War II. Note that this wasn’t written until 1956, so some time has elapsed before the end to the war and people have had time to rationalise what happened to them. Right at the beginning the reader is warned that this may be a grim tale: “the Balickis had a grim time of it. But worse was in store for them” (Loc 42).
We are given a quite graphic description of the concentration camp where father Joseph is interned (loc 52). Joseph, does manage to escape and has to make some tough decisions. He threatens some of his compatriots. He finds his home-town changed when he gets back(loc 212). Worst of all he discovers that his children have probably died (loc 239).
The children escape the Nazis but only by taking a great risk - escaping via the roof tops (loc 357). Then they live in a cellar. In the summer they camp out in a field. They become very resourceful. However, Edek, the oldest, gets captured (loc 448).
There are some gleams of hope: not only do they find the silver sword in street-urchin Jan’s box but they are helped by some of the Russian soldiers after the war has ended. There are helpful coincidences: Jan found the silver sword in the rubble of what was Joseph’s home. It was a present he gave to his wife. He tells Jan to keep it and if it is recognised Jan can tell his children that he has gone to Switzerland. The children meet Jan. But there are also near misses: they find out what had happened to Edek. They arrive at the camp where he had been held - now liberated by the Russians - only to find that they have just missed him. He ran away the day before. Yet their meeting is also a great coincidence: a fight breaks out in the displaced persons camp. Ruth comes to holding a hand; it is Edek’s.
The story is fast-paced. Good fortune and problems alternate for the children.
As they make their way to Switzerland they stay for a while with a German farmer and his wife. They learn about their two sons who were killed in the war. They realise that the young men were actually really just like them (Loc 1275).
Throughout the story the children take risks - not least of all when they escape by canoe along white water (loc 1399) and in Chapter 23 ‘Dangerous Waters’. At this point too, the Americans become the enemy even though the family was originally persecuted by the Germans. Edek’s coughing is also a constant worry.
They arrive in a camp just outside Switzerland. They have been helped by an American of Polish descent. They are so near and yet so far. The Swiss will take no more refugees.
This is a story about displaced persons and it looks just before the end as if it is going to have a happy ending. But Serrailier warns us: “They did not know that what was in some ways their most dangerous ordeal still lay ahead” (loc 1691). He uses here the story-telling skills that produce Hollywood blockbusters; the children are almost completely scuppered by the famous freak storm of 1945 on Lake Constance.
The story ends happily. The whole Balicki family is reunited and they adopt Jan. But Serralier warns his young readers: “The war produced countless tragic stories, few of which ended as happily as that of the Balicki family” (loc 1846). Jan anyway remains damaged.
The story is fictional but based on some real people who did not form part of the same family. The final chapter tells us what happened after the war to the fictional characters.
This edition of the book contains many useful activities for the young reader.