Book Review: Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem by Rick Held

Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem…

About the Book:

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.

My Thoughts:

This was a moving story, all the more so on account of its personal and real-life inspiration for the author. Despite being a lover of historical fiction, I find novels about the Holocaust to be more often than not too traumatic to read, so I always approach them with caution. Their burgeoning popularity/marketability of late has been a bit alarming to witness. However, I did really appreciate Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem, particularly the ‘night lessons’.

While there were some confronting scenes of anti-Semitism demonstrated throughout the novel – degradation, humiliation, and violence, it was always within context and never gratuitous. It just crystallised the shocking way in which people can dehumanise each other without compunction. The things people do when they think they’re on the winning side, both historically and ongoing.

My only criticism of this novel is a stylistic one. There was a lot of ‘head-hopping’, jumping from one perspective to another within the same scene. I wondered if this was a side-effect of the author’s long career as a screenwriter since it did have a bit of a cinematic effect. This would work, in fact be necessary, on the screen, but in a novel, it just had a slightly scattered effect that compromised that element of mystique that comes from not always knowing what everyone is thinking or about to do.

‘They knew that the odds of ever meeting again were incalculably small. Even smaller than the odds of them both surviving. Tholdi wished there was some way he could unwind it all.’

Lyuba was a character that I became particularly invested in. A woman and a gypsy, two vulnerabilities to have to deal with within a time of extreme persecution. Her story had a quiet but driving impact upon me and just as he did with crafting Tholdi, I liked how the author gave us less than perfect characters to champion for. Much like real people. Those with an interest in WWII fiction will appreciate this novel, an assured debut that tells a fine story with an empathetic leaning.


Thanks is extended to Hachette Australia for providing me with a copy of Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem for review.

About the Author:

Rick Held studied creative writing at Victoria University before taking up a position at Crawford Productions, then Australia’s premier producer of television drama. He has since had a long career as a TV screenwriter and editor, working on numerous series including the critically acclaimed A Place to Call Home and the popular family drama Packed to the Rafters. Since 1997 he has been based in Sydney. Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem, inspired by his father’s wartime memoir, is his first novel.

Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem
Published by Hachette Australia
Released 28th April 2020

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem by Rick Held

  1. I am an avid reader. It is a long time since I’ve enjoyed a novel so much as to want to thank the author for writing it. This, by the way, is not a book about the holocaust. It is a book about human frailty, strength, ability to excuse and justify despicable deeds, survival, friendship, unrequited love, family dynamics and much more; based on the author’s knowledge of his family’s history.

    Liked by 1 person

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