By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
During a high-society luncheon in Washington a few years ago, Janet Langhart Cohen mentioned that she was writing a book about "growing up in apartheid America." Langhart Cohen is black. Another luncheon guest, who is Jewish, was taken aback.
"Oh, Janet, you don't want to go discussing that," Langhart Cohen recalled the woman saying. "You live in a penthouse. You're married to the secretary of defense. Why do you want to talk about those days?"
To answer those questions, Langhart Cohen, a former television talk show host and newspaper columnist, has written a provocative one-act play in which two martyred teenagers, Anne Frank and Emmett Till, meet after death in a place called Memory.
Anne, a Jew, died in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. She was 15. Till, who was black, was lynched by white racists during the Jim Crow era. He was 14.
"Janet came home after the luncheon and said to me, 'It hurts so much to be told that remembering my history is unbecoming,' " said William Cohen, her husband, who was secretary of defense during the Clinton administration. "Then she said, 'I wonder what Anne Frank would have said to Emmett Till?' And I said, 'Go write it.' And she did -- using two thumbs and a BlackBerry."
The play, "Anne and Emmett," turned out so well that two performances are scheduled for next week in commemoration of Anne Frank's 80th birthday. One is an invitation-only engagement at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum on June 10; the other is open to the public at George Washington University on June 12.
In the complex history of black and Jewish relations -- long characterized by a mix of empathy and mutual respect, hostility and suspicion, and, of late, wearied indifference -- the play seeks to rekindle a memory of a common struggle for freedom and justice.
But enlisting Anne and Emmett makes for risky business.
Anne, who died in 1945 at Bergen-Belsen in Nazi Germany, is considered by many Jews to be an icon without peer, her memory not to be tampered with. The famous diary she began writing at 13 has been translated into 67 languages and has sold 31 million copies. To this day, she serves as a powerful symbol of Jewish suffering under Adolf Hitler.
"I know the diary of Anne Frank almost by heart; it was required reading in my all-black high school," said Langhart Cohen, who grew up in a public housing complex in Indianapolis. "I spent much of my life crying over her history, because I owned it as mine."
Emmett, on the other hand, is remembered by comparatively few, and mostly because a photograph of his disfigured face was published in Jet magazine not long after his body was found. Emmett, a native of Chicago, was tortured and killed in 1955 during a visit to Money, Miss. In some accounts, he had whistled at a white woman. "Emmett never wrote anything I ever read, but we are the same age, same race, same culture. We both went South to visit relatives during the summer," Langhart Cohen said. "His death affected me so deeply I wanted to give my voice to him."
Her play is actually written for middle and high school students, the would-be peers of Anne and Emmett. It is a history lesson about the importance of tolerance, compassion and justice, to be acted out on stage, acted on in life.
In the play, Anne has been living in Memory when Till shows up, thinking he's still in Money.
Anne: Why are you so hostile? I don't even know you . . .
Emmett: You don't have to know me. That's the problem.
Anne: What problem?
Emmett: You're a white girl, and in Money, Mississippi, that means you can hurt me without saying a word. . . . All you have to do is point a finger at me."
But Anne knows all about being pointed at, singled out -- as well as being persecuted, instead of protected, by police, and being captured, cooped up and killed.
But there are more pressing concerns in Memory -- the warning of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, for one: "To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time."
Anne: We're all here together in the darkness, yet alone at the same time until we're pulled into the light, until we're remembered.
Emmett: Remembered? By whom?
Among those expected to attend the play at the Holocaust Museum is the woman from the luncheon who unwittingly inspired it.
Surely, she'll remember.