A Father's Promise: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Ivy Roberts

Ivy Roberts is an adjunct instructor in English, film/media studies and interdisciplinary studies.

This lesson introduces readers to the story and characters in Donnalynn Hess' historical fiction, 'A Father's Promise.' We will learn about eleven-year-old Rudi's journey across war-torn Warsaw.

A Boy in War-Torn Poland

Christian young adult author Donnalynn Hess published A Father's Promise in 1987. It tells the story of a boy struggling to survive in World War II Poland. The novel spans 1939-1945, from the beginning of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw to its emancipation by the Soviets.

Over the course of these six years, the characters are faced with difficult decisions that test their faith and courage. With its heavy themes of war, death, injustice, and discrimination, A Father's Promise would pair well with other historical fiction such as Number the Stars or The Book Thief.

Warsaw, 1939

Eleven-year-old Rudi Kaplan embraces his hybrid identity, but he's still getting used to being a Pole. Up to the age of three, he had lived with his mother and father in Sweden. But when his mother died, he moved with his father back to Poland. He's also half-Christian and half-Jewish.

Rudi's best friend is Salek Serdusek. Rudi would have liked it if he and Salek could attend the same school, but Mr. and Mrs. Serdusek insisted that their son attended a Jewish school.

Rudi's dad, Dr. Jakob Kaplan, works at Warsaw's hospital. Dr. Kaplan and Mr. Serdusek are also friends. They spend long hours every evening discussing current events, medicine, and business, but the conversation abruptly ended whenever religion came up. The Serduseks went to Synagogue, but their religious habits were more of a social obligation than a matter of faith.

The novel opens in Warsaw, Poland, in the fall of 1939. That fateful morning, German troops were already on their way to Warsaw. Rudi walks to school with Salek that morning, as they talk about the news. Rudi hates that Salek associated him with Hitler because of their Christian faith. Just because Hitler hates the Jews doesn't mean he's a good Christian.

Just as Rudi gets to school, the principal announces that school will be closed indefinitely. However, the teacher still has time to tell them the story of the Tartar (Mongol) invasion of Krakow in 1241. The trumpeter of Krakow nobly stuck to his post even after the invading Tartars had breached the city gate. He had sworn an oath:

  • 'I swear on my honor as a Pole that I will faithfully unto death, if need be, sound upon the trumpet the 'Heynal' each hour in the tower of the church.'

He kept blowing the tune, up to the moment his chest was pierced by a Tartar's arrow.

In the days that follow, Rudi reflects on the story and its relevance to the Nazi invasion of Warsaw.

German Invasion

The Poles frantically dig trenches and construct barricades to protect the city and its civilians from the German troops on approach and the blitzkrieg (literally lighting war in German) that will follow.

Rudi is helping his father at the hospital when the bombs begin to drop. Identified as Jews, the Kaplans and the Serduseks are forced from their homes. Soon after, Dr. Kaplan and Mr. Serdusek are both imprisoned by the Nazis. But before he goes away, Dr. Kaplan manages to get a letter to Rudi, one that he had been keeping hidden for 8 years. His mother had left Rudi a letter with a prayer from Revelations: 'there shall be no night in heaven'.

Polish Jews captured by Germans during the suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (Poland), May 1943

In another letter, Dr. Kaplan promises Rudi that they will reunite once the war is over. He insists that Rudi must flee into the forest to find safety. Plus, good news: Mr. Serdusek has found new strength in his faith in Christ.

Now alone, Rudi must find the faith to believe that God and his father have given him a promise.

Polish boy in the ruins of Warsaw, September 1939
boy in Warsaw

In the Forest

In the forest, Rudi meets Oscar, a leader of the resistance, who becomes his protector. Oscar offers Rudi sage advice: 'Your life depends on your ability to observe the world around you.' Oscar begins to think of Rudi as a son.

Soon, Rudi and Oscar find refuge with Anna and Josef on their farm. Anna is patient (enough to deal with Josef), and brave (enough to offer refuge to the resistance). Josef isn't so easily persuaded. He threatens to turn Oscar and Rudi over to the police.

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