THE BETRAYAL OF ANNE FRANK: A COLD CASE INVESTIGATION by Rosemary Sullivan

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(Ann Frank House, Amsterdam, the Netherlands)

For decades, the most famous work of Holocaust literature, THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK was required reading for many children. It is an important contribution to Holocaust literature in that it is one of the few primary sources that exists for a family’s day to day existence hiding from the Nazis.  Anne Frank’s papers were discovered after World War II and were edited by her father Otto, the only family member to survive extermination and published the diary in Dutch in 1947, and later in English in 1952.  There are many aspects of Anne Frank’s story that are shrouded in mystery, among them is the exact date of her death in Bergen-Belsen, probably some time with only weeks remaining in the war in Europe.

Another of the unknowns is how Nazi authorities came to learn the Frank family was in hiding.  The question of who led Karl Josef Silberbauer, an SS Sergeant and two Dutch detectives on August 4, 1944, to Prinsengracht 263, a narrow building along one of Amsterdam’s canals to the Franks where the family was in hiding.  Rosemary Sullivan’s latest book, THE BETRAYAL OF ANNE FRANK: A COLD CASE INVESTIGATION attempts to answer the questions surrounding the seizure and deportation of the Frank family resulting in the death of all except Otto Frank.

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In 2016 Dutch filmmaker Thijs Bayens, and journalist Pieter van Twisk opened a further investigation with a team of Dutch investigators, historians, and researchers that included  27 year FBI veteran, Vince Pankoke.  The team would be headed by Pankoke who treated the Anne Frank house as a crime scene, not a museum.  “With the help of newly designed software that used artificial intelligence to seek out data, patterns humans might miss, Pankoke and his ‘Cold Case Team’ spent several years combing through historical records, and police files interviewing witnesses and their descendants and analyzing theories.”*

The results of the investigation coincided with the release of Sullivan’s monograph and created quite a stir resulting in the Dutch publisher suspending further dissemination of the book.  One might ask what is gained by questioning how Anne Frank and her family were seized accomplishes.  In a world where many argue that “it cannot happen here”  all one has to look at is the increasing ideological divisiveness and the growing popularity of authoritarianism in the world today to see that it can occur and may be well on the way to doing so at present.

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One of the main reasons for the creation of the Cold Case Team is that the Netherlands had a reputation of tolerance whereby Jews could seek shelter after the rise of Adolf Hitler.  Despite this reputation the Netherlands transported more Jews to the death camps in the east than any other western European country.  Of the 140,000 Jews living in the Netherlands 107,000 were deported, and only 5,500 returned.  One of the questions Pieter van Twisk asks was why was the number so high?

Sullivan has authored a book that can  be divided into two parts.  The first, encompassing about one-third of the narrative focuses on rehashing the history of the Frank family and those involved in keeping the family safe in the annex behind the business at Prinsengracht 263, and the plight of Dutch Jewry upon the arrival of the Nazis.  The role of a Dutch Judenrat (Jewish Councils), deportations to Buchenwald, the role of the SD Jewish Affairs squad known as unit IV B4 which centered on collaboration, and Kopgeld, bounty hunters, and executions are all explored. Any attempt by the Franks to emigrate to the United States ran into the wall constructed by the State Department led by Breckenridge Long, an anti-Semite who did all he could to thwart the entrance of European Jewish refugees into the United States.  By 1943, Amsterdam was declared Jew free.  There is little that is new or surprising, but it forms a useful lead into the second section which focuses on the organization, make-up, and implementation of strategies to try and figure out who turned in the Franks to the Nazis or was there another explanation as to how the Nazis came upon the annex.

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Sullivan describes how the Cold Case team implemented modern law enforcement techniques that were not available after the war.  Strategies such as behavioral science or profiling, forensic testing, artificial intelligence defined as computer systems able to perform such tasks as visual perception, speech recognition, translation between languages, and decision making were all employed.  Scientists from Xomnia, an Amsterdam based data company that offered to provide the foundation for artificial intelligence that Microsoft agreed to develop further, stated that at some point the program algorithms should be able to predict what or who was likely a suspect.

Perhaps Sullivan’s most useful chapters center around the details of the investigation.  The team was amazingly thorough in its approach.  It investigated numerous theories and concluded that of the 27,000 Jews in hiding in the Netherlands, one-third had been betrayed. By the end of the investigation more than 66 gigabytes of data in the form of more than 7500 files was created.  In so doing Sullivan concludes that suspects such as Job Jansen, who in the early on had denounced Otto Frank to the Nazis and is convinced his Jewish wife is having an affair with Otto Frank was innocent.  Then there is Nelly Voskuijl, a Nazi whose sister was helping to hide the Franks.  Another is Willem van Maaren, the warehouse manager who might have been after bounty money.  Anton “Tanny” Ahlers, a currier for the NSB was a committed Nazi and bounty hunter but he like the others was not responsible for the seizure of the Frank family.  Lastly, there is the case of Anna van Dijk, who from 1943 on laid traps to uncover where Jews were hiding, but there is little evidence that she turned the Franks in – but she was executed at the end of the war for turning in at a minimum 68 Jews and possibly over 200.  

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In the end the Cold Case Team singles out a Jewish notary Arnold van den Bergh and member of Amsterdam’s Jewish Council  may have passed information about the Franks to the SS in order to save his own family.  Sullivan’s exploration into the Cold Case spends the most time analyzing the role of van den Bergh and his relationship with Otto Frank and argues that the most logical culprit was the former notary for the Dutch Judenrat, but Vince Pankoke is not so certain, so we must conclude that the investigation was less of an unsolved mystery and more of a well kept secret on the part of Otto Frank.

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(Vince Pankoke)

As Ruth Franklin points out, “those who went into hiding were perhaps even more at the mercy of others. Anne was unusual in having a stable hiding place together with her family; most Dutch Jewish children were sent into hiding alone, since they were easier to hide than adults. There are many stories of abuse and exploitation of these children by their hosts, in addition to the larger risks that hiding entailed. Picture all those dots on the map: any one of those people could potentially have betrayed the Franks.”  Or as journalist Kathryn Hughes concludes, Regardless, what Sullivan does manage to do is assemble a compelling picture of what it was like to live in Amsterdam under Nazi occupation: here is a collection of increasingly isolated individuals, hungry, terrified and daily faced with impossible choices about whether to save themselves, their loved ones, or the nice family that lives next door. And it is this moral vacuum that follows in the wake of antisemitism, rather than any particular “perp,” that betrayed Anne Frank.**

*Ruth Franklin, “Beyond Betrayal,” New York Review of Books, May 5, 2022, 20.

** Kathryn Hughes, “The Betrayal of Anne Frank by Rosemary Sullivan review – who tipped off the Nazis? The Guardian, 2 February 2022.

For an excellent discussion for the subject at hand consult Jane Eisner, “Searching for Anne Frank’s betrayer, finding a moral dilemma,” Washington Post, January 21, 2022.

Otto Frank’s business premises, Prinsengracht 263 (in the middle), around 1947.
(Anne Frank House, Amsterdam, the Netherlands)

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