#1956Club – The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

Ian Serraillier’s 1956 children’s adventure book about child refugees travelling from Poland, crossing Germany to find their parents in Switzerland remains as relevant today as ever, though today’s refugees come from different countries.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

This was a book I had on my BookCrossing wishlist, so I was delighted when a Finnish Bookcrosser sent it to me as a so-called RABCK (random act of BookCrossing Kindness) in 2011. 

Somehow I had expected this to be about knights and probably Arthurian. I remembered the name Ian Serraillier from shelving books in the school library and thought I had either read this or another of his books. Now I’m certain I didn’t read this and I’m not sure I read any others of his, unless the hated Beowulf the Warrior was the version of Beowulf we had to study in the first year of secondary school (horrible story!). But this is something quite different.

One of the extraordinary things about this particular book is that only one edition of it is listed on Goodreads, not the Puffin edition I have. There is, however, also a script version for the radio adaptation and it was serialised twice by the BBC in 1957 and 1971. Yet everything I have managed to find about Ian Serraillier says that The Silver Sword is his most popular book and I have found multiple blogs online where this is listed as a favourite childhood book. Looking at his other books, the only one I could imagine having read as a teenager is Beowulf the Warrior which we studied in the first year of secondary school, much to my horror; I’d never read anything where a creature’s arm had been ripped off before. Perhaps that’s why I remember his name. The Silver Sword is definitely more enjoyable, even if the story is grim in other ways.

A WWII refugee tale

This is the story of an epic journey undertaken by three siblings from war-torn Warsaw (Ruth, Edek and Bronia Balicki), accompanied by another boy, Jan, who they take under their wing. The children’s father was deported to work in Germany and after being dragged from her home, the children’s mother has fled to Switzerland, her home country, leaving the children alone. Their house is then bombed flat so they live in the rubble. Jan, a wild, thieving boy, presumably an orphan, becomes attached to them because the children’s father gave him a paper knife as a talisman, begging him to tell the children to head for Switzerland. The book is the story of their adventure, the people they meet along the way and the setbacks and strokes of good luck that befall them.

In spite of everything that happens, I can’t say it’s the most exciting children’s book I’ve ever read, but that may be due to my advanced age. Plenty certainly happens; there are numerous incidents that ought to be full of tension and places where it could all have gone horribly wrong.

Nuanced and humanised cameos

Later on in their journey, the children meet a range of adults: a British officer, an American officer at a military tribunal who is sympathetic to Jan’s antics when stealing food, a German farming couple who give them farming work. All these encounters give the opportunity to present a nuanced picture of the post-war landscape. Farmers exploit refugees for their labour, but provide them with food and sometimes shelter. The allied military forces are helping keep order, organising relief efforts, running refugee camps and helping repatriate displaced people.

People like the children in The Silver Sword don’t fit into the grand scheme of things. They are travelling against the flow to a country that is not their own, following the dream of being reunited with parents who may very well have gone back to Warsaw to look for their children or may not even be alive. And it’s worth pointing out, these children aren’t Jewish, so they are allowed more hope than those whose families have been sent to prison camps or have been in hiding. As such, the Balickis and Jan can more easily be accepted by the German farmers.

The military personnel are also humanised: the British officer writes home to his wife and is missing his baby daughter, Ivan the guard in Warsaw is helpful and compassionate, the farmer and his wife have lost their two sons in the war. Nobody is unscathed by the years of war. They pass convalescing soldiers (presumably German) who wave from their sunny balcony as they pass. Everyone is trying to resume life and return to something resembling normality.

Animals

Jan has a great affinity with animals. When the other children first meet him, he is carrying a scrawny chicken which he protects against all suggestions he might be eaten. There are other animal encounters along the way. I suspect it’s one of the reasons so many people have such fond memories of the book. While in the transit camp in Berlin, Jan tracks down a chimpanzee that escaped from Berlin Zoo during the aerial bombardment. This reminded me of something else that I read where someone had seen an unusual bird – a stork or a swan perhaps – in somewhere like the Reichstag just after the war. Annoyingly, I can’t remember which book, but I did save this link to Storks in Berlin Zoo, 1936. If anyone knows which book I read it in, I’d love to know.

A personal connection

One particular incident mirrored an incident in my grandfather’s wartime experience. While in Germany, Edek is stopped on the road by the local mayor, who has the job of sending Polish refugees back to Poland. During the war, Edek had been sent to work as a labourer in Germany and could therefore convincingly speak the language. Jan, on the other hand, cannot and so has to pretend to be deaf. This is very like one of my own grandfather’s wartime tales. He had become detached from his unit in France and had to hide in a cave until forced to rely on the generosity of a local family. In return, he helped around the farm. One day, when he was sawing wood with a big two-handed saw, a German soldier came along and offered to help. My grandfather had to pretend to be deaf-mute so the soldier didn’t realise he wasn’t French. I’m sure it’s a ruse that has come in handy for many people in many similar circumstances.

An unexpected Dutch phrase

Just a little aside: something that surprised me was that Ian Serraillier uses the phrase ‘to make a long nose at someone’, in other words, to thumb your nose. I have never heard this in English, but it is a ‘false friend’ translation of ‘een lange neus maken’ in Dutch. I wonder where he picked up that phrase!

Switzerland at last

Even when the children finally reach their destination, the situation is still nuanced. After reuniting with their parents with the help of the Red Cross ITS (International Tracing System), they all have the good fortune to live in an international village, with the Balicki parents becoming house parents to the Polish house. Yet all is not perfect after the traumas of war and their refugee experience: Jan has to unlearn his thieving ways and remains wild, Edek has to recuperate from TB in a sanatorium – of which there were many in Switzerland due to the pure air – and perhaps most tragically of all, the formerly decisive Ruth loses all her self confidence and clings to her mother for security. Only Bronia, too young to really understand and always protected by her substitute mother Ruth, finds it easy to readjust, though at first she can draw only scenes of destruction and escape.

Serraillier doesn’t name the international village in Switzerland, but it is obviously the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen, overlooking Lake Constance. This sent me scurrying to my bookcase because I have a book about this very village, bought from my school library around 1975. The Children’s Village: Village of Peace by Mary Buchanan. More about that in my next post.

I’m very glad the 1956 Club gave me a good reason to read The Silver Sword, as who knows when I would have got round to it otherwise. I’m not sure if today’s children would find it that exciting because of the way it’s written, but I’m sure a screen adaptation would work very well even today. And sadly, the issues about refugees are just as relevant today as they were back then. It’s still a story worth telling.