Rosemary Sullivan is an award-winning Canadian author renowned for her meticulously researched non-fiction, including Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape and a House in Marseille and her last book, Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva.
Her latest book is The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation. Published just a few weeks ago, it has already received more attention than anything else she has written.
The book documents an investigation into who tipped off the Nazis to the whereabouts of Anne Frank and seven other Jews in hiding in Amsterdam during the Second World War. Their annex, hidden behind a swinging bookcase, was raided on Aug. 4, 1944. Anne was 15 when she died the following year in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Only her father, Otto Frank, survived the war.
Revealed in the book, the investigation’s conclusion – that the informant was likely a Jewish man named Arnold van den Bergh – has been roundly criticized by some experts.
The book’s Dutch publisher, Ambo Anthos, has apologized in an internal e-mail for offending anyone, saying a more critical stand could have been taken, and has delayed printing more copies until further notice, according to reports.
Sullivan did not respond to requests for an interview this week. But when asked in an interview before the book’s release how she felt about being part of this story, she told The Globe and Mail, “I’m nervous. I didn’t do the research. I trust the research. If it had been a private book, would I have said I’m not going to say it was Van den Bergh? I don’t know. But I’m anxious, I’m anxious.”
The years-long investigation was conceived by Dutch filmmaker Thijs Bayens and journalist Pieter van Twisk. It was led by retired FBI special agent Vince Pankoke, who approached the mystery like a criminal cold case. There was a core team of more than 20 experts and dozens of other researchers and consultants. Sullivan was commissioned to write the book about the investigation, to be published by HarperCollins in Canada and the U.S.
“When they approached me, I thought this is in the cards,” Sullivan said in the interview two days before the book’s Jan. 18 publication. “And who doesn’t feel a deep attachment to Anne Frank?”
An advance from the publisher financed Bayens’s project, along with a grant from the City of Amsterdam and some private donations.
The team began work in 2016 with 30 scenarios and narrowed it down to 12 suspects, then four. The investigators ultimately determined that the likely informant was Van den Bergh, a successful notary before the Second World War. During the war he was a member of the Jewish Council in Amsterdam, a controversial body created by the Nazis.
Van den Bergh had actually been named as the person who tipped off the Gestapo about the Franks’ hiding place in an anonymous note sent in 1945 to Otto Frank, after he returned to Amsterdam from Auschwitz.
Pankoke posited that the informant would have had that information, the opportunity and the motive.
The team concluded that Van den Bergh, who died in 1950, had the information (they argued he was in possession of lists of addresses where Jews were hiding); the opportunity (he had access to high-level Nazis); and the motive (a married father of three daughters, he wanted to keep his family safe).
In the January interview, Sullivan told The Globe the team was 95-per-cent certain of its conclusion.
But doubts have been raised, including about the hypothesis that the Jewish Council would have had lists of addresses where people were hiding, something the book says is “almost certain.” Sullivan explained that the lists may have been used to ensure food got to people in hiding.
Another criticism involves the anonymous note: Who’s to say it wasn’t sent by someone who had reason to implicate Van den Bergh, perhaps to remove suspicion from themselves? The cold case team did consider that, according to the book. “But why send the note to Otto?” it asks.
The group points out that Frank himself took the note seriously enough to make a copy of it and give it to an investigator. And it was sent before the publication of Anne’s diary, so the writer of the note could not have been trying to somehow capitalize on Anne’s fame – or have been concerned about it.
The process behind this book was unusual for Sullivan, who is used to doing her own digging rather than writing about research done by others to which she has had access.
When asked by The Globe how she navigated this unfamiliar situation, she said “it was very hard.” She noted that she had access to all the research files, which were stored in a digital system called the Bookcase. “So by the time they got from the 30 scenarios down to 12 suspects, I could go to the Bookcase and read everything they had,” she said in the January interview.
“I always had the Bookcase with the summaries of these different individuals and their biographies and so on to go on,” Sullivan said. “So while [the investigators] were doing the research, I was doing the summaries.”
Sullivan, who said she was “not getting paid very much” for the book, sat in on a few team meetings in Amsterdam but was not part of the investigation insofar as offering suggestions or ideas. When the pandemic prevented her from returning to the Netherlands, the back-and-forth continued via Zoom and e-mail. “It would be me asking questions and Vince responding,” she said. “Or I would send them something and they would say, ‘You’ve got this wrong,’ and I’d correct it. It was that kind of dialogue.”
Ahead of the book’s publication, Sullivan said she was nervous about how people might react to the conclusion. “Mostly that it be used by anti-Semites,” she said.
In response to a request for an interview, HarperCollins Canada e-mailed a statement. “At this time, HarperCollins and international affiliates will not be commenting on another Publisher’s decision.”
An e-mail to Ambo Anthos Publishers on Wednesday did not receive a response.
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