“The Book of Anna” by Joy Ladin— Empathy, Trauma and God


Ladin, Joy. “The Book of Anna”, EOAGH Books, 2020.

Empathy, Trauma and God

Amos Lassen

Joy Ladin writes in the voice of Anna Ach Asher, a fictional Czech-German Jew who spent her teen years in a concentration camp and now lives in 1950s Prague. She answers phones for the secret police.

In “The Book of Anna”,  she writes about her present and past, living under a totalitarianism and having experiences the horrors of a concentration camp. She deals with the issues of empathy and suffering, trauma and God.  These are the same issues  that many of us face today especially because we never thought that they would be part of our present lives.  She keeps a prose diary in which she writes autobiographical poems that examine her present state and how she has to deal with it. She shares her process of writing as well as details about her life including sharing thoughts about how she interacts with neighbors, her obsessive sexual behavior, her smoking, and how she explores Jewish tradition.  We read about her attempts to deal with horror, survival, and what comes afterwards.

She reflects onher pre-war love of a Heidegger-reading yeshiva student, on the women who saved her life in Barracks 10 and on the Biblical “song made of songs” where she finds the absence of God yet where the rabbis see God everywhere. She attempts to find a reason to live after having experienced the horrible fates that she dealt with and says that the reason that she has written these poems to rise above having had her poetry rejected for publication. “I can’t blame him for finding my lyrics unattractive… My muse is rage, not beauty”. We are punched in the gut with that very first diary entry.

I am totally in love with the way that Ladin uses the language and imagery of sacred Jewish texts including the Biblical story of Tamar, Talmudic disputation, the imagery of the Song of Songs, mystical texts about golems and psalms that we use for the celebration of Sabbath.

While Anna experienced the atrocities of the Holocaust, this is about so much more and is really about what it takes to survive after one has lost all; every shred of faith and humanity. Naturally we feel the bitterness in Anna’s voice but we also sense the brutal honesty with which she writes. She deals with an omnipotent, omniscient God who seems not to understand the creation and yet who accepts prayer of praise and lament.

This is the second edition of a book that has become one of theclassic texts of trans literature and it has a new afterword by the author in which Ladin looks at her reflecting on this book’s importance for her own development of poetics and identity. And as Anna reflects on her life so does the reader reflect. Memory after memory came rushing back to me as I read and I was both shattered and uplifted at the same time. Anna is an unforgettable person yet she adds so much to how we value the poetry of Jewish America.

Ladin follows Anna’s as she tries to find something  that will let her continue to live. She ultimately does but only after a heart-wrenching journey that lets her become whole. What you might not expect is that this is a love story in which Anna learns to live. We are all so lucky to have had the chance to travel with her. She responded to the Jewish ideal of “CHOOSE LIFE”. I understand that Joy Ladin wrote “The Book of Anna” during her gender transition and faced the same questions that she did and herein is the book’s total relevance for today.