Poles apart: a war-torn-childhood classic resonates yet

Few childhood books made such a lasting impression on me as Ian Serraillier’s Silver Sword.  Nevertheless, until my daughter reminded me of the work, I would have struggled to identify the source of the themes that so impressed me.

The story, aimed at readers from ten to their mid-teens, was published in 1956.  It is the tale of Ruth, Bronia, Edek and Jan, four children who are separated from their parents in second-world-war Warsaw. Guile, luck and determination lead them on an incident-rich trudge to Switzerland, where in the early days of peace, they are, against all odds, reunited with their mother and father.

Reading the book when I was ten, three decades after Germany’s capitulation, its depiction of war’s privations was enormously powerful.  Even since, when faced with an apparently insurmountable task, the way forward has often come to me after reflecting that my challenges were pettifogging beside wartime’s demands.  In my mind’s eye, the manifestation of this has always been the perilous quest that Serrailler sketched out.

When my daughter, Lucy Adams, was cast as Bronia in a dramatic adaptation of the book, produced by Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre and performed at the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, its title raked up only the dimmest recollections.  As curtain-up approached, however, details of the narrative emerged slowly from the shadows of my memory – Jan, damaged by experience living on the streets, the children’s self-organised education and the dramatic crossing of Lake Constance.

Watching the performance pitched me into a tumult of high emotions – beaming pride, hot tears and gut-wrenching sadness among them.  Parental proximity provides insufficient critical distance to offer a proper judgement of the show (EADT, Ipswich Waterfront and, The Review Hub liked it).  What did strike me though, were the themes that passed me by forty years ago.

The children’s struggle provides the narrative action, but their eventual success depends on the kindness of people met along the way – often against the odds.

Most arresting are the German farming couple, Frau and Herr Woolff who take the young wanderers in for several days.  With their formative years terrorised by Nazi occupiers, the children are naturally suspicious: the Woolff’s two sons are lost to the fighting.  By seeing beyond their differences, they all find that they all have something to offer one another.

It is not a surprising perspective from an author who was a Quaker and a conscientious objector.  That a book with this message at its heart was acclaimed as a children’s classic while Europe’s cities were still in ruins is heartening, nonetheless.

The inevitable question for today, of course, is can we find the same transformative decency that lifts humanity physically and spiritually from entropy?  The refugees streaming westwards as I write are every bit as wretched, if not more so, than the dispossessed of Mitteleuropea. When elected politicians such as the mayor of Bezier’s take it upon themselves to make a spectacle of personally bullying migrants, it would be easy to think not.  For so long as Serrallier’s ideas have currency, however, particularly when they are finding an enthusiastic new audience, I shall retain hope.

Photos copyright Tim Dawson – they feature Lucy Adams performing as Bronia at the New Wolsey on 4 November 2015.