The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation

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Release Date: 
January 25, 2022
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“Ultimately the great ‘aha’ moment seems more like a ‘hohum’ moment. The arguments marshaled are all completely circumstantial and could be rebutted in the same way the team rebutted numerous other similar contentions.”

Rosemary Sullivan describes the years-long work of The Cold Case Team, a group of investigators looking to discover the person who told the Nazi authorities about the hiding place of the Frank family. The group includes a journalist, former FBI agent, and data experts, among others. Sullivan herself is an academic specializing in Holocaust history.

The book outlines the many false leads the group followed, the vast archives sifted through, the patient explorations including personal interviews—all of which led to a final conclusion. Unfortunately, ultimately the great “aha” moment seems more like a “hohum” moment. The arguments marshaled are all completely circumstantial and could be rebutted in the same way the team rebutted other similar contentions.

In fact, when the book came out, it quickly ignited a big controversy. The European Jewish Congress echoed other Jewish groups and historians who found fault with the lack of real evidence uncovered to justify the accusation ultimately made against a fellow Jew. The Dutch publisher considered the issues in reliability strong enough to justify pulling all their copies and discontinuing the Dutch translation.

HarperCollins continues to sell the original English edition with no apologies. The investigative team behind the book defends its work as “a theory and nothing more,” according to the Dutch news agency ANP. So they are providing not a definitive answer after all, but an example of how to conduct research into this kind of question. Or an example of how not to.

The book does paint a good picture of the insidious effectiveness of the Nazi plan to murder every single Jew in Europe. And it shows how the general population aided this work, through apathy if not outright anti-Semitism. None of the material presented is new, but is perhaps unknown to the broader public. One of the major “discoveries” the team makes is the use of money to pay people who reported the whereabouts of hidden Jews. These receipt books are the basis for many of their explorations into possible suspects. But there were reasons beyond financial gain to point out where Jews could be.

The team ends up with a group of around 30 suspects, people who had knowledge of where the Frank family was, motives to turn them in, and the opportunity to do so. There are many twists and turns as various individuals are investigated, but the most incriminating piece of evidence in the team’s mind is a note they find in Otto Frank’s papers:

“It said, ‘Your hideout in Amsterdam was reported at the time to the Judische Auswanderung in Amsterdam Euterpestraat, by A. van den Bergh.’”

Careful research proves the note to be authentic and dates it to Frank’s return to Amsterdam after the war. The question, of course, is why didn’t Frank act on it? What did he know about it that The Cold Case Team didn’t? The assumption the team makes is that since Van den Bergh was a fellow Jew, Frank didn’t want to implicate him. That seems like a huge assumption to make. Sullivan goes on to argue:

“Perhaps Otto’s lack of interest in exposing his betrayer can be put down, in part, to Van den Bergh’s death. What would be the point in pursuing a dead man? Otto always said he didn’t want to harm the man’s children. He also may have concluded that Van den Bergh would become a convenient scapegoat for Jew haters.”

“Perhaps” and “may” aren’t solid proof. But the group feels they have knowledge, motive, and opportunity, enough to pin the blame on Van den Bergh. They don’t question carefully why someone would falsely accuse Van den Bergh. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the real culprit would consider a dead suspect the perfect stooge to set up for their own crime. Having read many letters from German scientists eager to clear their name from Nazi taint, this is not so credulous. In my research into the life of Lise Meitner, the Austrian Jewish physicist who fled Berlin in 1938, I found a trove of letters to her after the war. Many were from scientists she’d worked with, some ardent Nazis, who now asked her to vouchsafe how kind they’d always been to her, how they weren’t anti-Semitic at all. This was all part of the “de-Nazification” process, systemic whitewashing of any guilt. Meitner was disgusted by it all. One man had even been a member of the SS but felt that somehow didn’t count—his heart wasn’t really in it, after all.

The need to whitewash one’s reputation was strong after the war. And what better way to clear all suspicion from oneself than finding a handy target to blame. A Jewish target would be even more satisfying. The Jews, after all, had only themselves to blame for the troubles they suffered. If they weren’t so odious, people wouldn’t hate them.

It’s not clear why The Cold Case Team settles on Van den Bergh after rejecting so many other suspects with similar levels of knowledge, motive, and opportunity. Perhaps they were tired of years of work with no clear answer. But the honest thing to do then would be to present the intractable nature of this puzzle. And perhaps to admit that an individual informant is beside the point. The blame for the death of Otto Frank’s family lies squarely on the Nazis and all the many average citizens who actively and passively supported their vicious policies.