Monday, June 11, 2007

The Big War: Escape from Warsaw

1940 was a terrible time in Poland. The German blitz had leveled much of the Warsaw's historic buildings; food was hard to come by in the snowbound winter; Nazi trooops occupied the city and countryside; and many Poles, Jews and Christians who had spoken against Nazi rule, were rounded up and confined inside what became the notorious concentration camps of eastern Europe. Once such prisoner was Joseph Balicki, who left a Swiss wife and three children, Ruth, 13, Edek, 11, and Bronia, only three years old, to try to survive on their own. Soon Margrit, their mother, was taken away in an early morning raid by the Gestapo, and Ruth, Edek, and Bronia escaped only by breaking their attic skylight and fleeing just ahead of the troopers over the rooftops of their Warsaw neighborhood.

Such is the beginning of Ian Seraillier's Escape from Warsaw, a fictionalized recounting of the true story of a Polish family separated by the German Blitzkrieg in the opening of World War II.

Not knowing the fate of his fate of his family, Joseph Balicki managed to escape from his prison camp and made his way to Warsaw, only to find his family gone. In the rubble of his home he found a small silver sword-like letter opener and gave it to an orphaned urchin named Jan who showed him where to jump a train bound for the Swiss border.

Ruth, Edek, and Bronia survived for a couple of years with the help of the Polish resistance, living in the cellars of bombed out buildings until, by chance, they met up with Jan, who showed them the silver sword and told the story of the escaped prisoner. Realizing that the man was their father, the three children and Jan decided that their only hope was to make their way across Germany to Switzerland, where they hoped to find their parents and Swiss grandparents.

As the Allied forces began to sweep across Germany, the children walked by night, hitched rides in trucks and wagons, and with the help of a kind German farm family, floated down river until they reached the Danube, feeding themselves upon scavenged and stolen food and dodging first German and then American soldiers, until they reached the border. Although Edek was near death with tuberculosis and the others were very weak, the four finally arrived at Lake Constance in Switzerland and and with the help of refugee services there were reunited with the Balicki's parents. According to Seraillier's account, the real-life family upon whom this story is based went on to found the first Children's International Village to house and educate refugee children and in later decades to work for peace and international understanding.

Escape from Warsaw is a fast-paced adventure story on one level, but it is also an inspiring story of intelligence and incredible courage on the part of the refugee children who never gave up hope of finding their parents and living again as a family.

Labels: ,