Frank flashes back to his childhood in Budapest during the war. His tone is straightforward as he remembers hurrying through the streets with Ida at dusk. The night before, thirty people in the apartment below theirs, including children he’d played with, were seized and taken to be murdered at the river. Frank hasn’t been outside for a long time and the streets look strange to him, especially since most of the stores are shuttered, the sidewalks are filled with debris, and the streetlights are broken. Besides being very cold, he’s mortified and angry with his mother, who has dressed him in a skirt.
Frank’s tone reveals that even as a young child he was accustomed to seeing horrifying events unfold around him; however, his concern with the minor indignity of the skirt is a reminder that he was still a child who didn’t completely understand what was going on. In the first description of the Golds’ life during the war, it’s clear that they’ve lived through trauma far more extreme than Frank’s polio.
Ida is taking Frank to her piano teacher, Julia Marai, and has dressed him as a girl so soldiers won’t check to see if he’s circumcised. She’s told him again and again that they can’t stop, not even to pet a dog. Ida is wearing old shoes and a hat. All winter she’s gone bareheaded in solidarity with Meyer, who’s in a freezing Ukrainian labor camp without a hat. Now, she has fake papers and a new job, and has to dress inconspicuously. Frank can’t keep up, so Ida picks him up and he quickly falls asleep in her arms.
Ida immediately emerges as tough, resourceful, and fiercely loyal to her family. Here she seems much different from her first appearance in the novel, anxiously chain-smoking on the porch in Australia. Ida’s remarkable tenacity in times of crisis ensures her family’s survival through the war; it’s also a strong link between her and Frank, who inherits this characteristic even though he often despises his mother’s intensity.
Julia lives with her companion, Hedwiga, in a small apartment on the other side of the river. Ida even carries Frank up the stairs, and he feels uneasy because she’s being too considerate. Frank draws back from the strange apartment, as he always does from the “smell of other people in crowded rooms,” even though he’s used to this by now. However, he also smells milk, which he hasn’t tasted in a long time, and he sees a cat, which excites him.
Frank’s worry over his mother’s care shows that he’s very perceptive, even as a little boy. It also shows that while Ida is a very protective mother, she’s not a conventionally doting one. Importantly, living in close proximity to strangers is something Frank strongly associates with both the war and polio. The unpleasant experience of being at once isolated and unable to attain solitude links the two major traumas Frank has to survive.
Julia is an imposing old woman with a formal voice, but she assures Frank he can have his pants back. Ida kisses Frank and tells him to behave well, then quickly leaves. Frank understands that she is afraid. Frank cries a little when she’s gone, but Hedwiga gives him dinner and he’s full for the first time in months. During the day he must be very quiet and not put his face too close to the window.
Although he misses his mother, Frank gets along with the two women because they treat him with dignity and don’t coddle him; Frank will always cleave to adults who treat him this way, rather than as a child.
Ida had asked Julia to hide Frank weeks before, though she worried that she was demanding too much of her teacher. Hedwiga and Julia prove happy to play some part in the resistance, however, even though they’d grown used to living in solitude and don’t particularly like children. Ida is overwhelmed by their kindness, when she’s grown to expect contempt from everyone. Still, she knows that it’s only because she’s Julia’s best student and “heir” that she’s permitted such a large favor.
Even though Ida’s career as a pianist has evaporated in the war, her relationship with Julia—the product of Ida’s vocation—is central to her survival. Her teacher’s selflessness is a relief from the cruel isolation Ida experiences as a Jew during the Holocaust. Moreover, it seems to her that by being talented and diligent, she’s somehow earned a place for Frank to hide safely.
Having left Frank, Ida hurries back across the river, searching for the “fighting core of survival, of self-love” which she needs to draw on to save her family. She’s worried about being without Frank, but she feels things are simpler now that she’s alone. She knows that, living with two largely immobile women, there’s a chance that Frank might die in the bombing raids that will soon be directed at the city, but she feels it’s better for him to die like that than to be shot and thrown into the Danube. She can’t believe she’s been reduced to making such grim choices for her son and worries that Meyer would have wanted her to keep Frank by her side.
It’s important to note that while Ida feels bogged down by Frank, it’s primarily because she can’t act as efficiently with him as she can on her own. Unlike a conventionally feminine mother, Ida is belligerent and almost coldly pragmatic, but the novel valorizes these characteristics by linking them firmly to her family’s survival. Even Ida’s use of the word “self-love” underlines her inherent generosity; since she’s using the word to describe her family, it demonstrates her intense devotion to them.
Julia always gives Ida strength. As a teacher, Julia always insisted that beyond her talent Ida had to cultivate “a certain ruthlessness” to succeed. For Ida, this tactic succeeded: she won an important contest as a young woman, and on a celebratory trip with her family met Meyer. In the following years, new laws prevented Ida from studying or performing, but she was getting married and pregnant with Frank. She practiced diligently and tried to ignore “the mounting force for which they had no name.”
While artistic, Ida’s vocation isn’t characterized by its beauty or aesthetics; rather, it’s a method of fighting, a strong expression of self-will in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Though playing piano is ostensibly irrelevant to surviving the Holocaust, the skills Ida cultivated during her career have prepared her for this part of her life.
Ida hoped to have a child who looked like Meyer, but Frank turned out to be disappointingly like her, both in looks and personality. Now, she misses Meyer constantly, and feels that longing for him contributes to her physical decay.
Just as Ida wishes her son were more like Meyer, Frank will grow to resent his resemblance to his mother. The similarity in their characters draws mother and son together, but it will also prevent them from really appreciating each other.
On her way home, Ida passes the Gellért hotel, where she used to play piano in the early years of the war. One day, in the middle of her shift, a waiter had handed her a note informing her that the police were going to arrest her. She tucked it into her dress like a love note, played one more waltz, and slipped out the back door. Now she’s acquired fake papers and is going to work as a housekeeper; she needs to scrape some money together in order to buy food and get it to Meyer in the labor camp where he’s imprisoned.
Though perpetually apprehensive as an Australian mother, Ida proves cool and collected in times of crisis. She doesn’t experience the mental toll of these traumas until after the war is over, which demonstrates that, for her, the process of surviving long outlasts the actual war.
Ida is still astonished that a city she’s loved her whole life, and always felt to be her own, could turn so quickly into “a hunting ground,” with danger at every corner.
Ida’s sense of circumstances changing abruptly mirrors the children’s onset stories, when polio descends without warning. Linking these two experiences together, the novel suggests that threats to survival are always lurking, even if they can’t be foreseen.
Frank isn’t actually sure if he remembers the walk to Julia’s apartment, or if he only knows it from Ida’s stories. But he does remember his life in hiding. His first separation from Ida marks “the beginning of himself,” the first time he’s in charge of putting on his own clothes and deciding for himself whether to feel sad or happy. The best thing about Julia’s apartment is that there’s always food, since Hedwiga is good at scavenging and bartering and can even obtain milk. Both Frank and Julia, who can’t walk by herself, depend on Hedwiga completely for survival.
Importantly, Frank’s first separation is a milestone in his life and not an entirely bad experience, since it helps to develop his independent consciousness. This separation is similar to his separation from his parents during his stay at the Golden Age. Both experiences show that while distance from his parents is frightening, it’s a necessary part of growing up and learning to think for himself.
Even though he’s bored, Frank tries to behave well and be quiet. He spends a lot of time watching for Ida at the window and finds he can’t remember what her face looks like. He also listens to trains coming and going from the nearby railway station.
The noise from the trains corresponds to the constant factory noise the children hear at the Golden Age. Just as he will be in the hospital, in Julia’s apartment Frank is confined to a small location with his survival uncertain. These similarities strengthen the links between the two traumas Frank experiences in his short life.
On Thursdays, Julia gives piano lessons to a man named Mr. Arpad; they rely on this income for food. During the lesson, Frank has to hide in the attic and be completely still. The attic is dusty and pitch black. Frank knows from experience that doing what he’s told is a matter of life and death, but it’s difficult to stay still in such a frightening place. He passes out for a while, and when he wakes is calmed by the noise of the trains, which he listens to until the lesson is over. For the next several days, he can’t speak. The following Thursday, Frank struggles mutely while Hedwiga tries to lift him into the attic, and Julia stops giving lessons.
Frank’s stint in the attic explains his fear of confinement and immobility, which, importantly, are two major consequences of polio. It shows why the normally precocious boy was so scared by the iron lungs and impressed by Sullivan’s endurance. The similarities between Frank’s physical experiences in the Holocaust and as a polio patient contributes to a sense of similarity between the two challenges to his survival.
In December 1944, the Red Army lays siege to Budapest and the German troops trapped inside, destroying the city. Ida, who has survived bombing, starvation, and the Arrow Cross’s ceaseless hunting for Jews, hurries to Julia’s apartment building; she sees that it has been completely bombed out and feels certain that Frank has been killed. In the next moment, however, she sees Frank running to embrace her. In fact, Hedwiga and Julia did make it out of the building, and all three have been living in the cellar on food Hedwiga scavenges.
While most of Ida and Frank’s interactions show how circumstances have prevented them from having an ordinary parent-child relationship, the image of a child running to his mother is universal. It’s clear that even though Frank spent a long time away from his mother and even stopped remembering her, their bond is much stronger than the distance they’ve endured.
In Australia in the present, Ida and Meyer and their Hungarian friends sometimes reminisce about the country they once loved and all its delights–from hunting and sailing to concerts and cafés–that Australia doesn’t have to offer. However, these recollections always end in uneasy silence, when they realize that despite their fond memories “they’d been guests…in that country,” soon to be expelled violently during the Holocaust. The Golds think of themselves as a lucky family because all three have survived and now live in a democracy. Besides two of Meyer’s brothers, he and Ida have lost all of their relatives.
After the Holocaust, Ida and Meyer suffer strong feelings of isolation. On one hand, they’re outsiders in Australia and unsure if they even want to adapt to this provincial society. However, even as they cling to their European customs they’re always reminded of their violent expulsion from Hungary and know that they don’t belong there either. Even though the Golds have survived the war, the grief and trauma it caused still dominate their lives.
Even after they move to Australia, Frank knows he’ll always remember the terror of hiding in the ceiling. His fear of the dark and confinement keeps him from going to the cinema or playing hide and seek. He feels this weakness is the “gap” that made him vulnerable to polio.
Even though Frank’s lingering anxieties are completely understandable, he’s embarrassed of them and feels he’s responsible for contracting polio. In order to move past these childhood traumas, he’ll have to learn that they aren’t signs of weakness or reasons to be ashamed.
When Frank wakes up in the hospital on the day of Sullivan’s death, Meyer is there. He says that the hospital has arranged for Frank to move to the Golden Age, where he can be with other children and go to school. The IDB nurse has told Meyer that Frank is “precocious but emotionally immature,” and Meyer has the feeling that his son has been kicked out.
Everyone, from Frank to the nurses to Meyer, feels that doesn’t belong at IDB. His outsider status mirrors his parents’ feelings of isolation as New Australians. Similarly, Frank’s determination to do well at the Golden Age will correspond to his parents quest to become content in their new society.