2021 Reviews · historical fiction · World War II

Book Review: Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem by Rick Held

Title: Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem

Author: Rick Held

Published: April 28th 2020

Publisher: Hachette Australia

Pages: 352

Genres: Fiction, Historical

RRP: $29.99

Rating: 4 stars

A powerful debut novel based on a true story for those who loved THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ and ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE.

The hero of this book was not a saint, nor even a tzadik – the nearest Jewish equivalent – but he was a hero. Someone who risked his own life to make a difference to the life of another. Were his motives selfless? No. He was after all flesh and blood. A man. And a very young one. But life is not black and white. Heroes are not without their flaws. This is his story.

Tholdi is a romantic. A musical prodigy whose brilliant future is extinguished when the horror unfolding across Europe arrives at his door. One day he’s captivated by the beautiful, mysterious Lyuba who he meets on his sixteenth birthday; the next he wakes to the terrors of war as the Nazi-allied Romanians attack his town of Czernowitz.

A ghetto is built to imprison the town’s Jews before herding them onto trains bound for the concentration camps of Transnistria. With each passing day, Tholdi and his parents await their turn. And then Fate intervenes, giving them all a reprieve.

At the weaving mill Tholdi secures work that spares him. He is elated. Until he discovers the two brothers who run the mill are Nazi collaborators hiding a terrible secret: the threat of transportation remains. When Tholdi sees one of the brothers with Lyuba, he glimpses a way to save himself and his family. But the stakes of his gamble are high. Will Lyuba be the key to their survival, or will Tholdi’s infatuation with her become a dangerous obsession that guarantees their death?

NIGHT LESSONS IN LITTLE JERUSALEM is an unforgettable debut novel of war, family and love.

Review:

Fact and fiction merge in Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem, a hybrid family memoir crossed with historical fiction piece by Australian screenwriter Rick Held. A coming-of-age tale that encompasses themes of family, duty, loyalty, survival, war, passion and music, Rick Held’s tribute to his father’s experiences in the war is an intriguing composition of war time Czernowitz, a forgotten corner of the Holocaust.

Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem introduces a teenage musical genius named Tholdi. Despite a bright future in music predicted for Tholdi, this is put in serious jeopardy when the war arrives on his front doorstep. But Tholdi is preoccupied by his passionate fascination for an alluring beauty named Lyuba, who he encounters on his sixteenth birthday. This provides Tholdi with a welcome distraction from the horrors unfolding in his home town of Czernowitz. With the threat of labour camp deportation imminent for so many in the local area of Czernowitz, including Tholdi, these are incredibly trying times. The tides change for Tholdi when he gains a lucrative position working at a local weaving mill. This position seems too good to be true and Tholdi soon discovers that his new employers are in talks with Nazi representatives to continue their deadly plans to transport local citizens to labour camps. But Tholdi is an enterprising and perceptive young man, who devises a plan to ensure that he safeguards his life and that of his family. Love, fixation, risk and survival form the narrative arc of Rick Held’s debut piece, Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem.

With a background in creative writing, television based screen writing and editing work, first time novelist Rick Held has used this experience to his advantage to pen a novel of strong significance. A very personal memoir, housed in the form of a moving fiction piece, Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem is a visceral and pronounced composition from author Rick Held.

I’m always on the lookout for new tales and forgotten crevices of the Second World War, so Rick Held’s Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem caught my eye when I made my review requests with this book’s publisher. Although the author is very clear in his approach to this novel taking a fictional route, the fact that it is based on his father’s experiences and diaries added a strong sense of brevity to this tale. Held’s characters do feel as though they are real life figures and their respective lived experiences cut straight to the heart. I felt as though the lead figure allowed us to view his coming-of-age tale, as he navigated the difficulties of life under the strain of war. The book is told from the eyes of this observant young man, teetering on the edge of adulthood. Tholdi is paired against another narrator and a solid set of intriguing protagonists, who all add plenty of absorbing interplay to the tale at hand. I also appreciated the female gaze that was offered in the form of protagonist Lyuba’s testimony and related experiences. It reminds us of the persecution ordinary people faced in the war in terms gender, class, race and religion. Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem succeeds in delivering a cutting and sobering message of past oppressive regimes.

Told via a third person format, Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem is a sensitive and moving story. The narrative formatting was a little shaky at times, which made it a little hard to grasp the different perspectives presented to me. However, Held has undoubtedly attempted to provide a fully realised account of what happened in this corner of Europe, which may have been neglected previously in favour of other more known experiences during this terrible time in our past. Echoes of forbidden love, regret, morality, internal struggles, loyalty, survival, growth, family and trauma form Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem. With an underlying focus on the power of music and ambition, Rick Held’s very visual first novel delineates the impact of the Second World War from this municipal once dubbed as Little Vienna.

Poignant, detailed and penetrating, Rick Held’s keynote fiction offering based on his father’s first-hand experiences reminds us of the blemished souls of the war. Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem is for those who value quality historical accounts of the Second World War.

Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem by Rick Held is published by Hachette Australia on April 28th 2020. $29.99.

https://www.hachette.com.au/rick-held/night-lessons-in-little-jerusalem


*Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.

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