The Book of Anna Maps the Emotional Landscape of a Holocaust Survivor
Author: Brody Parrish Craig
February 11, 2021
The Book of Anna, by Joy Ladin, explores the emotional landscape of life after the Holocaust through the eyes of fictional protagonist Anna Asher. This month, EOAGH books will release a revised & expanded edition.
We meet Holocaust survivor Anna first through detailed diary entries. These day-to-day accounts of work, home, & doctor visits deepen our connection to Anna as an individual we could easily meet next door, save for the letter-headers that remind us that we meet her in Prague in the 1950s. These diary sections ground us in Anna’s interior & double as allegory. Coupled with sections of poetry, we shift genre & scope throughout the collection.
Originally published by Sheep Meadow Press in 2007, EOAGH’s updated The Book of Anna explores grief in the aftermath of the Holocaust in a way that breaks the heart open—Ladin opens the collection with a letter from Anna after receiving a poetry rejection claiming “My muse is rage, not beauty./Was. There are no muses for me now…It is time for me to write, if I write at all, the true story of my life.” We soon meet Anna’s neighbor, Suzanne Wischnauer, in the second letter. A fellow survivor of the camps, she first appears because she “smells gas.” Anna explains “I know what she smells. It’s seeping from the story I’ve started to tell.” So often we see stories of the Holocaust through textbooks, facts, museums, in a way that creates distance from the gravity & trauma of this collective wound. Ladin breaks the objectivity of history; Ladin makes the historical personal—the impossible grief of tragedy, of surviving the unspeakable. Through Anna Asher’s eyes, we are given insight into a survivor’s psyche in a way that only poetry can create. The reader is allowed to witness the irreconcilable faith of the narrator paired with their irreconcilable grief.
From linear narrative to nonlinear poetry, Ladin reconciles the irreconcilable by cultivating our presence in the collection’s world, where the unspeakable is spoken. Through sectional arrangement & timeless lines, The Book of Anna decentralizes the common fallacy that history is to be “consumed” as a separate, distant past. Here, as the epigraph reminds us, “Nothing is harder to predict than the past.” We are never looking back, but rather looking on & looking in.
While the journal texts create a linear narrative, the fragmented lyric poems center snapshots of Anna’s day to day comings and goings. We are allowed to witness Anna’s subconscious processing—a channel from trauma to healing—a momentary look into the larger connections, both triggered & opened, by the world. There are ants in the kitchen. When Anna kills them, she immediately thinks of Hitler and Stalin. When the ants reappear, they remind her of “her girlhood.” Time becomes seamless—limitless—an act of impermanence in a senseless world. Where the journal collects, the poems scavenge. We are the digger and the dirt, the earth and what the earth can and cannot hold.
At times numb, at times overtaken, Anna Asher is constantly searching for the truth—through doctor visits, theological consultations, relationships, sex, anything and everything she can get her hands on to reckon with the living, with the present moment, with continuing. As Ladin’s poem “Golem” reminds us, “Emet or Met, Truth or Death—” speaking a theme that threads The Book of Anna, reflecting the narrator’s refusal of death & search of truth in the perpetual present.
While Anna cannot escape the past, she still chooses to write through death. And with this book, Joy Ladin has chosen to write towards truth. Powerful, unsettling, and breathtaking, The Book of Anna is a must-read for 2021.
The Book of Anna by Joy Ladin EOAGH Books Paperback, 9781792307225 March 2021