Anne Frank, Emmett Till and the abuse of history


An age and more ago, Robert Fisk wrote a book about Israel’s misbegotten Lebanon war. It was the kind of book that, starting with its title, "Pity the Nation," is so fraught with its own importance it overwhelms its cause, however righteous.

In it, I recall (I don’t have it here with me) Fisk describes asking Bruce Kashdan, an Israeli diplomat, what Anne Frank might have thought of Sabra and Chatila.

Kashdan is well known in Jerusalem for the rewards his incremental, insistent diplomacy has reaped in the Arab world (and for turning up in the unlikeliest corners of the planet), but whatever berth is reserved for him in diplomat heaven was earned for resisting what must have been a mighty urge to deck Fisk. (To his credit, Fisk more recently has demonstrated a sensitivity to the misuse of Holocaust imagery.)

Now we have an imagined dialogue between Anne Frank and Emmett Till, the African American teenager whose lynching in Mississippi in 1955 galvanized the civil rights movement.

The play, by Janet Langhart Cohen, is to be performed next week at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and at George Washington University.

From the excerpts in this Courtland Milloy column in the Washington Post, it sounds just awful. The two teenagers meet each other in "Memory" and Frank (who died a decade earlier) explains it all to Till:

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?

Teenagers, apparently, are blessed with elegant, writerly speaking skills when they die.

Ugh. Anne and Emmett were murdered, but now they have a reward. We remember them.

That makes us the heroes.

It’s been said that Washington is Hollywood, but with less beautiful people. And certainly, there is a propensity in both towns for appropriating grief and turning it into sentimental, self-loving swill.

What makes the prospect of this performance even less promising is that Milloy – in apparent collusion with Langhart Cohen, who is married to William Cohen, the former defense secretary – uses it as a stick with which to beat a Jewish acquaintance of the playwright. This is how it starts:

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?"

And this is how Milloy ends it:

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.

The woman’s remarks, while awful, were also expressed in private, and she is now being humiliated in public. (Believe me, the way DC works, a lot of people will know exacly who this woman is.)

And the thing about bullying, is that it is abhorrent whatever the character of the bullied.

More than that, that exchange is the product of Langhart Cohen’s memory; shift a word or two in what was said and the Jewish acquaintance might simply have been warning the budding playwright that she did not have the chops to pull this one off.

That would sound about right.

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