Considering the fact that Poland was the first country that came up against Germany during World War II, you’d think that there’d be more books about it. The Poles were persecuted more than any other group, with the possible exception of the Jews; Hitler planned to work the entire population to death. However, most of the fiction books out there focus on France and Great Britain and the United States. Luckily, the few books about Poland and WWII are pretty awesome, like Escape from Warsaw by Ian Serraillier.
A Note on History:
Hitler’s invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 was “the shot heard around the world” so to speak. It was the official beginning of World War II. By October, the country was occupied, and the Nazis started resettling the Poles. And then outright murdering them. More than 1.9 million Poles were murdered, and this number doesn’t include the Jewish Poles. The plan was to use the Polish people as slave labor until they died. It wasn’t just genocide of the Jews during the war, it was genocide of the Poles as well.
I mention this history to first illustrate the complete loathing that much of Germany had to Poland and then to explain that an entire Polish family surviving intact was an anomaly.
In the early months of the war, the Balickis, a Polish family living in Warsaw, were fragmented. Joseph, the father, was sent to a prison camp. Margrit, the mother, was taken away by Storm Troopers, possibly in reaction to Joseph’s escape from the prison camp. Regardless, the three children, Ruth, Edek, and Bronia spend the next few years learning to survive on their own.
Through a twist of fate, Joseph meets Jan, an orphan child who’s excellent at stealing (especially food). The two make a deal: Jan gets this tiny envelope-opening silver sword of Joseph’s if he keeps his eye out for Joseph’s children who Joseph is desperately hoping are still alive. After escaping, he returns to Warsaw to find his house, and meaning of the others, bombed and flattened. His only hope is that his surviving neighbors say that they saw his children alive.
From here, the Balicki children and parents go through many adventures to meet up in Switzerland, a pre-established meeting place where a relative lives, hoping that the others are alive.
It’s amazing that an entire family survives to meet up again in a safe place, but the Balickis probably weren’t the only ones to experience this small miracle; they were just of the very, very few. Likewise, the children weren’t the only ones to eke out survival in a Nazi-occupied Poland that was determined to kill them off. They just happened to be smart and lucky enough to pull if off. This book is a bit fantastic in that the characters beat the odds. Not many of the Poles did.
The Balicki children — Margrit, Ruth, and Edek — and Jan the orphan are the main characters. They manage amazing feats of survival. They had strength of character and will. It’s sad, though, the things they have to see at such young ages. Polish children everywhere during this time had to grow up fast. Joseph is also a great character, managing to escape a prison camp that killed multitudes and meeting up again with his wife. On the other hand, not much is said about Margrit.
The story begins at the beginning of 1940 with Joseph being arrested for the simple infraction of turning over a picture of Hitler in the school room where he taught. It concludes in 1945, covering a 5-year period of suffering and tribulations that affected the children just as much as the adults. The entire period was necessary to get a feel for the changing circumstances of the Poles from occupation to “resettlement” to liberation.
The writing was powerful because so much came from the point of view of children. It was almost painful hearing the deprivations that these most innocent of human beings — innocence that should be protected and nurtured — went through. How it changed them, affected them throughout their lives. And then to see how the Balickis chose to live with love and honor despite everything gives you an idea of the power of the human spirit, the power of forgiveness. The power of love.
This book might be unrealistic in ways. It ended in a happily ever after. But that wasn’t the point. The point was what love and forgiveness can accomplish. How humans can rebuild juxtaposed against what we can destroy. There’s good out there despite all the bad.