Warsaw, Poland. 1942. Germany has invaded, and for the Balicki family, this is very bad news. The family consists of Joseph, his wife, and his three children: Ruth, Edek, and Bronia. Joseph is taken to a Nazi prison camp called Zakyna not long after the occupation begins. He escapes back to Warsaw about a year later, only to find his home rubble, his wife taken to Germany by Nazi storm troopers, and his children assumed dead.
With nowhere else to go, Joseph decides to head to Switzerland. He and his wife had decided that this was where they would meet if they were separated, and the children know to head there as soon as they can. With the help of an orphan boy he meets prowling the ruins of his house, Joseph escapes Poland. But not before telling the boy, Jan, to keep an eye out for his three children. He also entrusts a silver letter opener he once gave to his wife, shaped like a sword, to the street urchin who found it in the rubble.
For the rest of the war Ruth, Edek, and Bronia manage to scrape a living from the ruins of Warsaw. Things become harder for the girls when Edek is caught by the Nazis and shipped to Germany to labor on their farms. It is not long after this that they meet Jan, who joins up with the two Balicki girls.
To keep herself busy, Ruth starts a makeshift school for the other Polish orphans living amid the rubble. When the war ends, Ruth begins searching for her parents and younger brother. She seeks help from the local Russian outpost and, when one of the soldiers comes to deliver supplies for her school, he tangles with Jan. In the process, Jan’s treasure box, which he always has with him, is smashed.
Out falls the silver sword, sending Ruth into a fit of tears since she recognizes the letter opener her father gave to her mother. Jan reveals that, with the intervening years, he had forgotten his promise to their father. But, now that he remembers, he is willing to help the two Balicki girls find their parents.
Thus begins the trek of the three children as they head to Switzerland in search of Mr. and Mrs. Balicki. They pick up Edek, who has contracted tuberculosis and is in rough shape, along the way. The four endure many deprivations and hardships, but also manage to make a great many friends on their journey. Ruth manages the four of them, protects and leads them, and is the only one who can handle the kleptomaniac Jan.
Throughout their adventures, friend and foe alike are impressed with the Balicki children’s determination to find their parents. This fidelity to a mother and father who might well be dead inspires many to help them, even at great risk to themselves.
Escape from Warsaw is a good story, and I quite enjoyed reading it. It is easy to read. If you know someone who is a World War II buff, then this book would not be a bad recommendation for them, whether they are adults or children.
It is important to note that Escape from Warsaw puts Poland in the spotlight, highlighting much of what it and Eastern Europe endured during World War II and its aftermath. While the details of Communist treatment of the Polish are not dwelt on in this story, it should be noted that the Balicki children left Poland before the U.S.S.R. had cemented its control over the country. Given their determination to reach Switzerland, I do not blame any of the characters for deciding to stay in that country rather than returning to a Poland under Soviet rule.
Until next time,
The Mithril Guardian