The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation

The new book by Rosemary Sullivan (2022), The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation, is chilling to read. We know what happened to Anne Frank and the other seven who hid from the Nazis for 26 months, but less about the society where both betrayal and heroism existed side by side.

Anxious to read this book, halfway through it, came the news that the book was being removed from shelves as a result of backlash by a group of historians and academics that called the hypothesis of the book, identifying the probable betrayer of Anne Frank and seven others, faulty, and the methodology used to focus on the betrayer, highly questionable. More on that, later.

I first heard of this cold case investigation from a 60 Minutes story. The group of investigators formed to uncover the mystery of who reported the Frank family and others to the authorities, worked this mystery as a crime investigation. A very, very cold case.

It is estimated that 25,000 Dutch Jews hid during World War II, a third of which were betrayed. There were seven other people besides Anne Frank in their group, a large number in one hiding place. Smaller groups, especially splitting up families, were easier to successfully hide and move around if needed. That means the thousands of non-Jewish Dutch hid people they did not even know, for long periods of time, unless they were moved for security reasons. Hiding Jews was a crime, punishable by deportation to a concentration camp, and being assigned to the harshest conditions. Those hiding Jews were made an example to those defying the Third Reich.

As a starting point, Sullivan’s book recounts the story of the Franks in the Netherlands, before the war, the period of hiding, facts about their experiences in the concentration camps, and the aftermath for Anne’s father, Otto Frank.

The Netherlands, as described by Sullivan, was a very hostile place, especially for Jews, which surprised me. I have read and studied modern European history, but I must have missed the climate leading up to the eventual occupation by the Nazis. As a neutral country, governance and enforcement shifted toward enacting laws that mirrored those in Germany. Restrictions and hostilities toward Jews increased. Otto Frank would fail in efforts to seek safety in other countries, even as the Netherlands at first appeared to be his best option when his family left Germany after Hitler gained power.

The Netherlands exported more Jews to concentration camps than any Western European country, more than 70 percent of the Jewish population (107,000 people); and only a fraction of that number (5,500) returned after the war. According to the book, laws and bureaucracy were not welcoming to those who did return. Otto Frank, because of his German background, was deemed “hostile” and unable to get his property back. It took him several years to get that label changed.

I mentioned these things not to criminalize the Netherlands, but to help define the hostile environment and the heavy-handedness of the attitudes that contributed to the atmosphere of hate, fear and self-protection that leads to betrayal. The Nazis offered a bounty for each Jew turned over to authorities. “Jew hunters” apparently were plentiful as were Dutch collaborators, many of whom were police officials, members of the Dutch Nazi Party, profiteers involved in the confiscation of Jewish assets, and those who curried favor by reporting on their fellow citizens. Records of payments for these bounties, called Kopgeld receipts, would be helpful in the cold case investigation.

The cold case team worked for five years and gained members along the way, including retired FBI agent Vincent Pankoke. The team incorporated Artificial Intelligence tools and special computer programs to work with the massive amount of data that be considered. Modern investigation procedures went to work on existing evidence, techniques not created or available back then. Two other investigations had taken place, but none in the 50 years. Even Otto Frank pursued the mystery of who betrayed his family after he returned following the war. Several books had been written about Anne Frank that speculated on several individuals, but that’s where it remained.

One of the first challenges the cold case team faced was navigating the organizations and representatives that oversaw the Anne Frank legacy, assets and rights. The team found that cooperation would be difficult. Documents, evidence and data pertaining to past investigations were scattered around the world. New information, including interviews, witness reports was uncovered as they went along. The AI Microsoft program could find overlooked correlations and clues not previously known. Maps and timelines gave a deeper analysis of datapoints. Crowdsourcing also generated additional theories to investigate.

Like most detective work, searching and reviewing, looking through haystacks of materials for a relevant piece of information is slow and tedious. One example, Pankoke used the National Archives in Washington D.C., searching through records recovered at war’s end and shipped to the U.S. One piece of information might not give you an ah-ha moment, but it leads to another thread of information that makes something else clearer and points in a new direction. The Nazis were meticulous in their record-keeping, something that would be frequenting used against them as crimes were investigated and the fate of millions was sought by authorities, journalists and families looking for answers.

The 60 Minutes story reported that team was able to identify those who lived around the annex where the Frank family and others hid. Team members were able to research records and not only identify the people, but analyze each of their backgrounds and color code them by degree of threat based on pertinent information. Sullivan’s book walks the reader through the investigatory steps and each theory of serious suspects.

One of the most interesting and sad parts of Sullivan’s book is the telling of many Dutch citizens who turned on their fellow citizens. The Dutch Nazi Party was quite active, the Dutch police force was overflowing with corruption and Nazi sympathizers, but beyond that, the citizenry had both protectors and betrayers. Money, protection, power and just anti-Semitic views were motives. In wartime, food is scarce and survival can be a powerful drive in a life of fear. Others find a niche in a broken and repressive society, gaining a sense of power and belonging as their influence with Nazis and sympathetic Dutch officials give them a small feeling of superiority or safety. After the war, trials were held for collaborators and many were executed while others stripped of their nationality and imprisoned.

Researchers and academics discuss the accuracy of The Betrayal of Anne Frank.

However, the book and work of the cold case team, is now under review and the findings described as “a shaky house of cards.” The book’s Dutch publisher announced this week the book is being pulled from stores and offered an apology. Does his mean the team’s methodology and prime suspect are wrong? Not necessarily. The team could be wrong in their conclusion since there is no conclusive evidence of the suspect’s guilt of betraying the Franks and others. No smoking gun.

I will not reveal the person identified by the cold case team as the betrayer. The individual named was Jewish. Jews betraying other Jews? Sadly, that happened under the horrific circumstances of this war. The Nazis and their Dutch agents, coerced, blackmailed and tortured many into giving up information to save themselves or family. It happened all over Europe as acts of survival in a time of barbarism. Did it happen here? We will never know for sure after nearly 70 years.

I found the book fascinating, the research and investigative techniques exhaustive to gather, analyze and reconstruct wartime Amsterdam and the area around Prinsengracht 263, where the Frank family and four others hid.

The controversy over the book makes this read even more intriguing.

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