Tag Archives: Ian Serraillier

Child refugees and The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

I offer you child refugees to think about for Refugee Week(18th– 24thJune 2018). I start with a children’s book: The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. It was first published in 1956, written in his summer holidays by a school teacher in Sussex. It is set in Europe, mostly after the end of the Second World War, when millions were displaced, trying to find a place to live or to return home. The characters are based on real people, who travel through a real landscape. The reader, young and old, understands that the war created a terrible situation for the Balicki family from Poland, and they were fortunate to survive and be reunited.

The Quest of The Silver Sword

I read this children’s book very soon after it was published. It made a lasting impression on me, and I gladly reread it for this post 60 years later. The story follows a family who were separated in Warsaw during the war by the Nazis. The father, a school teacher, was arrested for a small act of disrespect to Hitler, but escaped from the prison camp; the mother was sent as slave labour to Germany, and the three children survived in the cellars and forests of Warsaw until the end of the war. When the city was liberated by the Red Army, the three children made their way from Warsaw to Switzerland, along with another stray child and his animals (at times he has a chicken, dog and chimpanzee from Berlin Zoo). This was the time – after the war – when chaos and devastation was everywhere in Europe and millions of displaced people were trying to get somewhere else. War is terrible and destructive and creates refugees of people of all ages.

The family and Jan are connected by the sword of the title, a paperknife, originally given to Mrs Balicki by her husband. The older daughter, Ruth, a teenager, leads the children. She is a natural teacher, a resourceful problem-solver and able to take command and care of the younger ones. Edek has TB, and for a while had also served as slave labour, but at the end of the war was liberated to a prison camp. Bronia is the youngest and then there is Jan, the wild boy whose fate is tied up with theirs and the silver sword.

This is a classic quest, with near escapes, disasters and a great deal of kindliness from individuals: Red Army soldiers, Germans (the farmers), British and US soldiers, and the refugee organisations set up to help the many, many refugees with their journey and with tracing family members. Against all the odds, capture, betrayal, hunger, tiredness, illness, orders to return to Poland, and travelling by foot, lorry, and even canoes, they are all reunited in Switzerland.

At the time of its publication it was, apparently, suggested that children should not be exposed to the distress in the story. Perhaps the adults had not yet recovered from their distress from the war that had ended only 10 years earlier. Despite this it was soon adapted for a BBC TV series in 1957 and later also for the radio and there have been stage versions too. Puffin Books, the children’s section of Penguin Books, republished it in paperback in 1960. It has remained popular with children.

Child refugees

Ian Serraillier makes much of the sympathy that young people easily evoke, encouraging people to share meagre supplies, or to bend a rule or two, even to provide life-saving footwear, canoes and accommodation. Child refugees should be a phrase we never read. But in Refugee Week we must not ignore them.

Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee was drowned aged 3 on 2ndSeptember 2015. You will remember him and the picture of him washed up on a Turkish beach. Like many thousands of refugees, displaced by war, he drowned crossing the Mediterranean trying to reach Greece. The situation briefly became clear – everyone agreed that something had to be done. But it wasn’t and refugees, including children, continue to make the dangerous crossing, to drown, or to find no welcome in Europe, or to face the ‘hostile environment’ in the UK.

Did You See Me? is a short story of 329 words by Kit de Waal. It is dedicated to Alan Kurdi, ‘the boy on the shore’. You can find it in a recently published anthology of the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers: A Country to Call Home, edited by Lucy Popescu.

Did you see me in Kobane, running through the square? Did you hear my father’s shout? We were laughing, my brother and I, and my father came lumbering after us, his arms outstretched. ‘You’re too far away! I cannot catch you!’ (43)

Every refugee is an Alan Kurdi, or a child of the Balicki family. You and I and children we know have escaped this fate only by the accident of our births.

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, first published in 1956 by Jonathan Cape. US title Escape from Warsaw. Puffin Books in 1960. The edition I read was from Red Fox and includes an afterword by the author’s daughter. 192pp

A Country to Call Home, an anthology of the experiences of young refugees and asylum seekers edited by Lucy Popescu, published by Unbound in 2018. 241pp

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