Some children enjoy historical fiction. Escape from Warsaw by Ian Serraillier (originally published in 1959 as The Silver Sword) is a good one for them to consider reading. It tells the inspiring story of four Polish children living through World War II and its aftermath.

The novel begins with Joseph Balicki’s imprisonment and escape from a Nazi concentration camp. Joseph is the father of three of the children. He returns to Warsaw where he discovers his house is a mass of rubble and his wife and children have disappeared. A neighbor tells him the children probably died when the Nazis blew up the house. Joseph refuses to believe they are dead. He meets Jan, a wild orphan boy scavenging the site. Joseph asks him to tell the children, should the boy meet them, that he has gone to Switzerland to their grandparents’ home and they should follow. The father gives the boy a silver letter opener which the boy wants.

I find the father’s encounter with the orphan boy and the outcome of that encounter an interesting plot choice. The happy ending for the father and his children is the result of kindness. Joseph is kind to the orphan boy, Jan, who later meets the children. At first Jan doesn’t know that the children he has met belong to the kind stranger. Ruth, Joseph’s oldest daughter, who has started a school for children living among Warsaw’s ruins, is kind to Jan, too, even before she learns that he has valuable information about her father.

The four children face many challenges as they try to survive in war-torn Europe. They must struggle against a lack of food, a lack of shelter, traveling on their own, days on foot, bombed out towns, refugee camps that want to hold them, a military government that wants to return them to Poland and the serious illness of one of the children. It is months before the children reach Switzerland. Despite all these difficulties, the children often demonstrate loyalty to each other, honor toward others and great perseverance.

While the author does show the struggle that the children experience, he also shows them learning important lessons. They learn there are consequences for acting rashly and foolishly. They learn that people can be kind and generous even when they have little to share. When they are befriended by a German farmer and his wife, the children learn that former enemies are not all bad.

I dislike it that the children stole from the Nazis when they lived in Warsaw, even if they didn’t steal from friends. However, on their journey to Switzerland, except for Jan, they do not continue to steal. Ruth makes Jan give back a silver spoon that he has stolen from a German housewife. She also makes him confess to the Americans that he, and not her brother, was a member of a gang that was stealing food. The other children and even Jan accept that he must suffer the consequences and be held in detention temporarily.

Escape from Warsaw is rich in story and characters. It is an inspiring read appropriate for children fifth grade and above.

Nancy Ellen Hird is a mom, a writer and a credentialed teacher. (She taught seventh grade and preschool.) She is the author of the mystery novel for girls, I Get a Clue, Desert Fires Press.  Two of her other published works for children are Marty’s Monster and Jessica Jacobs Did What?  For several years she was a freelance reviewer of children’s and teen’s literature for the Focus on the Family website.

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