Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem by Rick Held

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Set in Austria in the middle years of World War II, this is a story of two families – Berthold [or Tholdi as he is generally known] and his parents Nathan and Lina, and Alex and his parents Jacob and Mira and his sister Peppa.  Tholdi, Alex and Peppa are best friends and there is an implicit understanding that Tholdi and Peppa will marry.

The author – Rick Held – has based this story on the memoirs of his late father although he states in the Author’s note [337] that it ‘is a work of fiction, told by a fictional narrator’.  The story is told in the third person and the two key protagonists are Tholdi and Alex.  The author’s father is Alex Held [ perhaps the ‘Alex’ of the story] and his cousin is Robert [perhaps the ‘Tholdi’ of the story].  The latter assumption can reasonably be made as both Robert and the fictional Tholdi are brilliant classical musicians.

However, to respect the author’s assertion that the book is a work of fiction, no further attempt will be made to draw parallels between fiction and fact.

Both families live in a university town Czernowitz – located at the time of the book [1941] in Austria and occupied by Russian soldiers.  Both families are Jewish and their conversation generally in German – the common language at the time – is peppered with Yiddish words and phrases to acknowledge and remember their shared past.  Some residents wish that the town was still part of Romania, now allied with Germany, and Germany has its own solution for the Jewish population.

It is within this milieu that the story of Tholdi and Alex unfolds.  Tholdi is sixteen and his friend Alex is eighteen and much more worldly and experienced.  Alex decides – with the tacit permission of Tholdi’s father Nathan – that it is time for Tholdi to lose his virginity.  There is no better place for this to occur than in the local brothel where Tholdi will meet Lyuba – a beautiful older woman who is also a gypsy – a tsigayner.  This brief encounter will have considerable implications for the future of Tholdi in particular and peripherally for both families.

Soon though, the Romanians – supported by Nazi Germany – invade the town and build a ghetto to house the town’s Jews before they are transported to the concentration camps of Transnistria. 

Tholdi has employment in a manufacturing plant run by two brothers who are Nazi collaborators.  The threat held by them over all the workers is the weekly ‘list’ on which the names of those who are destined for the camps are included and provided to the Romanians.  It does not matter whether a Jew is a good worker or not as even the best can be included on the list simply to keep the others in line.

Late one evening, Tholdi observes one of the brothers – Radu – arguing with Lyuba [from the brothel] outside a rooming house in the town centre.  They seem to be lovers even though Radu is married.  To better protect himself and his family, Tholdi creates a plan to persuade Radu to install Lyuba in an abandoned apartment where he can visit her in relative secrecy – thus protecting Radu from gossip and the wrath of his wife.  One critical element of the arrangement is that Tholdi will regularly call on Lyuba to ensure that she is well provided with food and wine to limit her excursions to the town centre. 

Most readers will have realised by now that Tholdi is in love with Lyuba and his regular visits to her to bring provisions provide an opportunity for him to become closer to her without suspicion.  While there is a certain sexual tension developing between the two, Tholdi is very conscious that the safety of his family depends on his behaving appropriately at all times.  The author has perfectly captured the inner conflict of Tholdi as his growing desire for Lyuba is weighed against his obligations to his family and their future.

In the meantime, Alex and his father have managed to escape the town and Alex has returned for Tholdi and his family.  

Alex’s return and the eventual escape of Tholdi and his parents allows for the clever increase in tension and suspense as they follow the path set out for them by Alex with their false papers.  There is more than one close call and it is to the author’s credit that there is no sense of contrivance or artifice in these events.

Prior to the escape, though, there is an act of violence which on one hand is understandable in wartime but on the other seems out of character for the perpetrator.  One wonders whether its purpose was to ‘even the score’ before the family escaped.

The novel concludes rather neatly with an epilogue placed at some time in the future setting out the circumstances of the key characters.

The story is well crafted and the author has a skilled eye for characterisation.  However, the book does not offer any real sense of the experience of living in wartime Austria.  The reader must of his/her own accord imagine what life would be like in a town and at a time where Jews were demonised and threat of the ghetto and ultimately of the concentration camps was a part of their lived experience.  There is no suggestion that the two families live in fear – it is almost as if the story is written at one remove from the day to day events.  Ultimately, this means the novel does not fully engage the reader.

But, for all that, it is an engrossing novel and the story of Tholdi’s survival and the machinations he engages in to protect his family and Lyuba are intriguing. 

Rick Held has over thirty years experience as a television screenwriter and editor.  His credits include A Place Like Home and Packed to the Rafters.  This is his first novel.

Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem

by Rick Held

[2020]

Hachette Australia

ISBN 978 0 7336 4166 4

$29.99; 335pp

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