“Anne and Emmett,” by Janet Langhart Cohen, is an imaginary conversation between Anne Frank and Emmett Till.

Janet Langhart Cohen offers a history lesson on the tragedy of intolerance



Janet Langhart Cohen offers a history lesson on the tragedy of intolerance

“Anne and Emmett,” by Janet Langhart Cohen, is an imaginary conversation between Anne Frank and Emmett Till.

One of them was the most famous diarist of modern time. The other left no written record. One died at the hands of Nazis in their black-and-red regalia, the other died at the hands of white supremacists. One perished at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after hiding behind a bookcase in Amsterdam during the Holocaust, the other was tortured and killed after offending a white woman in a Mississippi grocery store as the Civil Rights Movement began to gain momentum. One was 16, the other 14.

Today, Anne Frank, who died in 1945, and Emmett Till, killed a mere decade later, survive as symbols: innocents slain by forces they didn’t create and ultimately could not overcome. Their stories – all the more relevant now with antisemitism and racism as the principal topics of the day – are told in books, their tragedies taught in schools, their deaths mourned across borders.

But for all their poignancy, all their parallels, their stories remained separate morality tales until Janet Langhart Cohen – a Black woman married to a half-Jewish man – had the wit and insight to tie them together in a one-act play that has eerie relevance today. “Anne & Emmett” debuted in 2009 and conjures a conversation between two young people who continue to offer life lessons to a nation that still struggles with hate.

It has searing relevance to this moment in our own time.

In the play, the Jewish girl explains to the Black boy the tragedy of the MS St. Louis, the ocean liner that in 1939 carried more than 900 Jewish passengers who hoped to escape Nazi peril by immigrating to Cuba. It was sent back to sea, rejected from landing in the United States. Emmet responds in wonder: “An American president treated white people like that?”

In the play, the Black boy speaks of how mobs “all dressed up in their Sunday best as if they were at a picnic” would lynch Blacks in the segregated South. Anne responds: “Oh, Emmett! I thought we were the only ones who had been treated like that.”

The following passage reflects our own passage:

Anne: The Nazis “started imposing restrictions on us … confined us to ghettos.”

Emmett: “Oh, I know something about ghettos …”

Anne: “We had to step off the sidewalks whenever the Nazis approach us. We were forbidden to look them in the eye.”

Emmett: “Know something about that, too.”

Then Anne Frank tells Emmett Till about the yellow Star of David patches Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe were forced to wear. “We didn’t have to wear any patches,” he tells her. “Skin color was enough.”

There are several moments of tension in the play, derived not only from the challenges the two faced, but also about silence in the face of hatred, the easy way we judge each other, and the approach we take to the torment of those who differ from us.

Anne tells Emmett that “Time can’t erase a crime against humanity,” explaining, “It’s never too late for justice.” Emmett tells Anne: “The Europeans are trying to make up for what one man – Hitler – did to you … But who do we blame for four hundred years of hate? … It was everyone … and no one … Like the police used to tell us, it all happened at the hands of ‘persons unknown.’”

In a way, this is the testimony of Langhart Cohen herself. Born in Indianapolis and reared in a housing project by a mother who was a maid, she became a model and a television journalist – including two star turns at WCVB in Boston – and worked for Black Entertainment Television (BET). In 1996, she married Republican Senator Bill Cohen of Maine, who soon afterward became defense secretary under President Bill Clinton, a Democrat. She became a vigorous advocate for America’s military personnel, creating the Military Family Forum.

Her life has intersected with the icons of modern Black American life: The basketball star Oscar Robertson, who grew up in her neighborhood. Rosa Parks, who wouldn’t move to the back of the bus. Muhammad Ali, whose fight was in the boxing ring and in the courtroom.

But it also has intersected with many of the luminaries of white American life – the usual characters in elite Washington plus one remarkable encounter with perhaps the least likely figure: the ultra-conservative publisher William Loeb of New Hampshire’s Manchester Union-Leader. It turns out that Loeb – a virulent opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act – was a fan of hers in her “Entertainment Tonight” years. He invited her to visit his home in Beverly’s Prides Crossing. They went off together to his shooting range.

“William Loeb was a man who detested liberals and the cause of civil rights for Blacks,” she writes in her “From Rage to Reason: My Life in Two Americas,” published 20 years ago. “Yet he had befriended me and welcomed me into his home … Perhaps he was, in the lyrics of a Kris Kristofferson song, ‘a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction.’”

Langhart Cohen once had a tree dedicated to Emmett Till on the grounds of the Capitol. She is polishing up a third work, one that continues her examination of these two victims of hatred. At a moment of fresh animosity toward both Blacks and Jews, we might reflect on this scene occurring in the final moments of her play:

Emmett: “I want to be remembered … forever.”

Anne: “OK. Then let’s go to the place where memories are kept and tell people they have to stop the hate.”

Emmett: “Before it’s too late.”

Anne: “If they don’t, we’ll just be having this same conversation – ”

Emmett: “Over – ”

Anne: “And over – ”

Emmett: “And over.” Θ

David M. Shribman, who won a Pulitzer Prize as Washington bureau chief of the Boston Globe, is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and teaches at Carnegie Mellon University and McGill University.

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