Hachette, Australia, 2020
Perhaps it is a sense that we must not lose the stories of the survivors of the Holocaust that has prompted writers and publishers to bring out a new wave of WW 11 novels in 2020. Indeed, the generation of our elders who lived from the time of the first world war and through the twentieth century are dying and many of them have already taken their stories with them.
There are some readers who ask what else there is to tell about this horrific history of Nazism in the 20th century – I am not one of these. I believe all of these stories need to be heard, respected and received as a salutary lesson – genocide and racial hatred, the power of privilege to cause pain and suffering, the capacity of those in political power to make unworthy and disastrous decisions, do not seem in short supply, as we make our way through the twenty first century.
Rick Held’s Night Lessons in Little Jerusalem comes to us courtesy of just one such elder’s voice – it has grown into a fiction based on the memoirs of Rick’s father, a Romanian Jew who emigrated to Australia after the war.
Rick has taken the skeleton of his father’s experiences and created for us a new war time perspective – the story of the persecution of the Romanian Jews and the Romani people in Czernowitz. Romania, like other strategically important places, was tossed between powers over many years – the Austrians, the Russians (Soviets), the Germans. Its history as a centre of high culture for the Austrian Empire meant it was a Jewish city. The Jews were encouraged to move there and they brought art, music education and culture, but were nevertheless reviled by the Romanians – for being Jews. In their turn, the Jews despised the Romani, the gypsies – for being Romani.
Our teenage hero Tholdi is based on Rick’s dad and it is he who crosses this line of blind hatred. Tholdi discovers an affair between his boss Radu and Lyuba, a Romanian prostitute Tholdi came across when taken to a brothel by his friend Alex, as part of his rite of passage to manhood. He is infatuated with Lyuba and offers a scheme to support Radu in his secret affair in return for the protection of his family from transportation to the concentration camps. He also manages to skim enough money off the top of this to supply his household with food they would otherwise have no chance of buying. It is a collaboration born of both desire and necessity.
This arrangement allows a relationship to develop between Tholdi and Lyuba well beyond that of house boy and the boss’s mistress. And it is this love story of sorts that underpins the story of the inexorable cruelty of the Nazi regime’s plans for the destruction of the Jews of Europe. Tholdi, his family and their life-long friends are living on borrowed time, always just a step away from transportation on the death trains.
With consummate skill, Rick bowls us along in an action-paced plot worthy of any screen thriller. Our affection for the people of this story, our engagement in their large fears and petty concerns, our empathy with their passions and uncertainties, our wish for them to overcome the mindless evil that has befallen them, ensure our full attention as the story whips along with acts of derring-do, sheer reckless courage and unexpected kindnesses and loyalties. We’ve had time to get to know these people, to live in the story. Such a gift.
This book is a fiction, but so gripping is its plot, so clear and three dimensional its evocation of place that we can easily believe ourselves to be in Czernowitz; we can almost trace Tholdi’s footsteps in the dangerous night streets and abandoned buildings. Rick Held has a background in television screenwriting and editing, which is clearly evinced in the skilful crafting of this novel. I hope we will see more.
Book supplied courtesy of hachette Australia