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Early on in a new, almost five-year investigation into who betrayed Anne Frank, the researchers were about to look into a variety of scenarios and had to consider an unsettling possibility: What if the person who turned in Anne and the other occupants of her hiding place was Jewish?
In the decades since Anne’s diary was published – which made her perhaps the most well-known victim of the Holocaust – the identity of the informant had remained a mystery. In 2016, a Dutch team set out to solve it.
They asked the Dutch military’s chief rabbi for his guidance. “Hardly anything is of greater importance than the truth,” Menachem Sebbag told them. “If the betrayer turned out to be Jewish, so be it.”
The group kept returning to that thought as the investigation made it clearer and clearer: The person they concluded had informed the Nazis about Anne and the others hiding in the Amsterdam annex was in fact Jewish – one of the most prominent members of the Dutch Jewish community at the time.
The new research is documented in a new book by Canadian author Rosemary Sullivan, The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation. The years-long investigation points the finger at Arnold van den Bergh, a notary before the war and, during the Nazi occupation, a member of the Jewish Council, a body mandated by the Nazis to govern various aspects of Jewish life – including making decisions about who would be deported to camps in the east.
The cold-case team – more than 20 core people plus dozens of consultants and helpers – began its work in 2016, a project initiated by Dutch filmmaker Thijs Bayens and journalist Pieter van Twisk. They brought in retired FBI special agent Vince Pankoke to lead it. A key part of the investigation would be the use of artificial intelligence, with every piece of information fed into a database. The AI program made connections the humans might have missed, cross-referencing people, addresses, dates, police officers on raids – who went with whom. Some 7,500 documents were uploaded into what became a 66-gigabyte system they called “the Bookcase.”
The team felt “very badly” when the investigation landed on Mr. Van den Bergh, Ms. Sullivan said in an interview. “It was the last thing you wanted.”
But to discount someone as a suspect just because they were Jewish would be not only unwise but wrong. As Mr. Sebbag had reminded them, the Nazis had tried to dehumanize the Jews. “The truth is that Jewish people are human at all levels,” Ms. Sullivan recounts him saying in the book. “As humans can or will betray each other, then there will also be Jewish people among them.”
Her book documents the investigation, which began with 30 theories, narrowed them down to 12 scenarios and finally four main suspects, including Mr. Van den Bergh.
“I think of van den Bergh as a tragic figure, not as some kind of villain,” Ms. Sullivan said. How sure is the team that he did it? Ninety-five per cent, she said. The case, 77 years old by the time it was concluded, “couldn’t be absolutely guaranteed to be accurate because there are holes.”
Anne was 13 when she, her sister, Margot, and parents Edith and Otto moved into the secret annex atop and behind the warehouse Mr. Frank once owned; as a Jew, he was forced to divest himself of the business after the Nazis occupied the Netherlands. Another family, the Van Pels, joined them, and later a dentist, Fritz Pfeffer. The entrance was hidden by a large swinging bookcase.
They were helped by a group of Mr. Frank’s former workers, including Miep Gies, who would remain a lifelong friend and confidante.
In hiding, Anne wrote in her diary. When she heard that the Dutch government in exile was hoping to publish accounts of life under Nazi occupation, she began revising it, sprucing it up, with plans to submit it once she was free.
But on Aug. 4, 1944, at approximately 10:30 a.m., the occupants of the attic were arrested in a raid by German and Dutch authorities.
The Franks were sent to Westerbork, then Auschwitz, where Edith Frank died. Anne and Margot were deported to Bergen-Belsen, where both died in early 1945. Anne was 15. Mr. Frank was the only survivor, liberated from Auschwitz by Soviet troops.
Immediately after the raid, Ms. Gies salvaged some papers from the secret annex, including Anne’s diary, which she gave to Mr. Frank when he returned. Originally published in 1947, it is probably the most widely read account of life during the Holocaust.
Ms. Sullivan’s book is a compelling page-turner that traces the Franks’ movements and arrest, and follows several theories – some well-established, others outliers.
Was it the warehouse manager, Willem van Maaren, who had tipped off the police? Was it the wife of another warehouse employee, who also worked as an occasional cleaner for the company? Another family of Jews who had been arrested nearby? Was it the sister of one of the helpers, an active Nazi sympathizer?
Each theory was disproved but one: Mr. Van den Bergh.
A key piece of evidence turned out to be an old one, considered and dismissed in an earlier investigation.
Shortly after returning to Amsterdam from Auschwitz, Mr. Frank received an anonymous note telling him: “Your hideout in Amsterdam was reported at the time … by A. van den Bergh.” The note said Mr. Van den Bergh had supplied a list of addresses.
The betrayal had been officially investigated in the Netherlands twice before – once in 1947-48 and again in 1963-64; both focused on the chief suspect, Mr. Van Maaren. The note was submitted in the 1963 investigation, not the original one. Why Mr. Frank kept the note secret and waited so long to submit it to an investigator was a mystery at the centre of the cold-case investigation.
The team kept coming back to that note – they knew about it but didn’t actually possess it. When they finally got their hands on a copy, they did all kinds of forensic work, including evaluating the speech pattern of the writer and the strokes of the typewriter.
Mr. Van den Bergh, born in 1886 in the Dutch town of Oss, was one of only seven Jewish notaries operating in Amsterdam before the war – a large and successful business. He was well known in the Jewish community and a member of the Committee for Jewish Refugees, a charitable organization.
In 1941, he was invited to become a founding member of the Jewish Council. He served as the council’s notary and attended meetings of the Emigration Department, which compiled the names of Jews who would be placed on deportation lists.
The Nazis no longer allowed Jews to work as notaries, and Mr. Van den Bergh’s business was overtaken by a Dutch Nazi sympathizer, J.W.A. Schepers. Mr. Schepers had it out for Mr. Van den Bergh, who had made the takeover of the business challenging by limiting access to its files.
After the Jewish Council was disbanded in 1943, most of its members were deported to concentration camps.
The cold-case team was surprised to find that Mr. Van den Bergh, according to records, did not spend time in any camps, nor had anyone in his family – he had three daughters and a wife. That became a central clue.
At some point, Mr. Van den Bergh had managed to change his status: He would no longer be identified as a Jew. The cold-case team wondered how he had managed to swing that.
According to the investigation, when Mr. Van den Bergh managed to shed his Jewish status, Mr. Schepers was apoplectic. Mr. Van den Bergh was warned he was in danger of being arrested. He, his children and his wife remained safe in hiding, in various locations – with the help of the resistance.
“Van den Bergh’s case was exceptional,” Ms. Sullivan writes. “On the one hand, he was able to ask the resistance to hide his children; on the other, he had enough powerful contacts in the Nazi hierarchy to secure [non-Jewish] status and then to be warned in time when that status was withdrawn. This, to the team, was suspicious.”
The team interviewed a granddaughter of Mr. Van den Bergh (her name is not revealed in the book) who had never met him; he died before she was born. When they eventually showed her the note naming her grandfather as the betrayer, she was shocked. Finally, she said, if he had done it, it would have been for only one reason: to save his own family.
It’s also how the cold-case team has come to view it. “I think that the only way I can cope with it is by seeing Van den Bergh as a tragic figure. He was a noble, an honorable man, a notary. He was working with Jewish immigration groups to help immigrants who were escaping from Germany,” Ms. Sullivan said in the interview.
“He gives that list as a way of keeping him and his family out of the extermination camps. … And it really matters to me, and I think it mattered to the group, that that was an anonymous list of addresses – there were no names. He was not betraying Otto Frank. And the real culpability rests with the inhumaneness of the Nazi soldiery.”
The team also concluded that Mr. Frank (who died in 1980) may have known it was Mr. Van den Bergh, as had Ms. Gies. She let it slip during a lecture at a U.S. university. When a student asked who had given the Franks away, her answer indicated that the betrayer was dead by 1960, but that she didn’t know who it was. If she didn’t know who it was, how did she know the person was dead?
Mr. Van den Bergh died in 1950. (Ms. Gies died in 2010.)
Why would Mr. Frank want to keep this secret? The team came to believe he was concerned about the impact of revealing that a Jew had turned in other Jews. Mr. Frank had always said he didn’t want to harm the culprit’s children – another clue; some of the leading suspects did not have children.
The anonymous note mentioned that Mr. Van den Bergh shared the address of the annex with authorities, not the names of its occupants. Mr. Pankoke, the former FBI agent, wondered if this made the act feel less personal to Mr. Frank. Perhaps Mr. Van den Bergh hoped the people hiding at the addresses had moved on? (Many Jews in hiding were frequently on the move.)
In the end, the team came to its conclusion not with a flash of insight or a bombshell revelation but, as Ms. Sullivan writes, “a slow coming together of evidence and motive, a jigsaw puzzle piece that suddenly, undeniably fit.”
All along, Mr. Pankoke had said they needed to consider three things: knowledge, motive and opportunity. Knowledge: It’s almost certain that the members of the Jewish Council had lists of addresses of Jews in hiding. Motive: Mr. Van den Bergh was trying to keep his family safe and thought he could do so by offering this information. Opportunity: He was in regular contact with high-placed Nazis.
The book emphasizes that Mr. Van den Bergh was not ultimately responsible for these deaths. “That responsibility rests forever with the Nazi occupiers who terrorized and decimated a society, turning neighbor against neighbor,” Ms. Sullivan writes. “It is they who were culpable in the deaths.”
But she is anxious now, worried that the information could be used by anti-Semites. “That’s why I think that nobody can judge Van den Bergh who has not been in his position. And who among us, if our families were on the line and heading to extermination camps, wouldn’t do what we could? And if what we could do would be to offer anonymous addresses, I don’t know that I know many people who could resist it. … The only ones responsible are the Nazis.”
The Anne Frank story: More on The Decibel
On The Globe and Mail’s news podcast, Marsha Lederman outlines new findings about how the Frank family’s hiding place was revealed to the Nazis. Includes excerpts from her interview with Rosemary Sullivan, author of The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation. Subscribe for more episodes.
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