On the morning of August 4, 1944, everything seemed normal at Prinsengracht 263, a tall, narrow building along a canal in Amsterdam’s Jordaan neighborhood. On the ground floor, the workers in the warehouse of a pectin and spice producer formerly known as Opekta/Pectacon—now registered under a false name, since its Jewish founder, Otto Frank, was no longer allowed to own a business—had the doors open to the summer warmth. Upstairs, the office employees were filling orders and doing other paperwork. A little after 9 AM, Miep Gies, a secretary, went to the back room of the second floor and pushed aside a bookcase against the far wall, revealing a secret door.
When Gies ascended the staircase, the eight people living in the back half of the building were waiting for her. They were always eager to see her, one of their few points of contact with the outside world. As the Nazi persecution of the Dutch Jews intensified in early 1942, Otto Frank had decided to create a hiding place for himself, his wife, Edith, and their two daughters, Margot and Anne, in the unused annex of his own office building. The annex, with two levels of living space and an attic, was big enough for another family to join them—Otto’s colleague Hermann van Pels, his wife, Auguste, and their son, Peter. Later the Franks and Van Pelses also took in Fritz Pfeffer, Gies’s Jewish dentist, after he told her he was looking for a place to hide.
That morning, as usual, Gies visited her friends and took any requests they had for food, books, or other supplies. Then they all returned to their daily routines. Margot and Anne, ages eighteen and fifteen, probably read or studied. Upstairs, Otto helped seventeen-year-old Peter with his English spelling.
Across the city, Karl Josef Silberbauer, an SS sergeant of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) Referat IV B4—also known as the “Jew-hunting unit”—was at his desk in Amsterdam’s Gestapo headquarters. As Rosemary Sullivan describes the scene in The Betrayal of Anne Frank, Silberbauer’s superior, Lieutenant Julius Dettmann, phoned him to pass along a tip that had just been called in: Jews were hiding in a “warehouse complex” located at Prinsengracht 263. Silberbauer was assigned two Dutch policemen and a detective to join him on the raid.
At around 10:30 AM, the men arrived at the building and entered through the open warehouse. One of the men may have shouted, in Dutch or German, “Where are the Jews?” At least one of the office workers later recalled that they went right to the bookcase. Otto heard footsteps on the stairs to the upper floor. The door opened, and he and Peter found themselves face to face with a plainclothes policeman pointing a gun at them.
Downstairs, the rest of the household was gathered with their hands up. Silberbauer asked where they kept their valuables, and Otto gestured toward a small wooden box. Looking for a place to store its contents, the SS officer picked up Anne’s briefcase, dumping on the floor her diaries and the manuscript in which she had spent the past few months reworking them. Later Miep Gies and Bep Voskuijl, another office worker who helped hide the Franks, found Anne’s papers, which were then edited by Otto and published in Dutch in 1947. With the assistance, in part, of Barbara Epstein, who was then a young editor at Doubleday (and later cofounded The New York Review), they were published in English in 1952 as The Diary of a Young Girl.
In the decades since, Anne Frank has become an icon. Her chronicle of the period she spent in hiding, now with more than 30 million copies in print in seventy languages, is the most famous work of literature to arise from the Holocaust, required reading for several generations of schoolchildren. Her image can be seen on statues and billboards worldwide; her name is synonymous with courage, with resistance to persecution, with the death of an innocent. Crowds gather to pay homage to her at Prinsengracht 263, which since 1960 has been known as the Anne Frank House, a museum established by Otto Frank that now welcomes more than a million visitors per year. An asteroid discovered in 1942, the year she went into hiding, was named after her in 1995; saplings from the chestnut tree in the courtyard behind the building, which she gazed at through the attic window, have been planted at museums and memorials, including Manhattan’s Ground Zero. Yet many elements of her story remain unknown, among them the exact date of her death, which took place in Bergen-Belsen sometime in February or March 1945, only weeks before the war ended.
One of the most enduring of those mysteries is exactly how the Franks’ hideout was exposed. Who might have made that phone call to Dettmann, and what was the source of that person’s knowledge? Over the years, numerous theories have been proposed. Anne, together with the rest of the household, worried that Willem van Maaren, an employee in the warehouse, might be untrustworthy; a 1948 inquiry conducted by the Amsterdam police into the betrayal of the Franks focused on him but turned up nothing conclusive. Carol Ann Lee, who wrote a biography of Anne and another of Otto Frank, made a case against Tonny Ahlers, a Dutch Nazi sympathizer and petty criminal, who is known to have blackmailed Otto.1 Melissa Müller, the author of another biography of Anne, suspected Lena Hartog, the wife of one of Van Maaren’s assistants. Joop van Wijk, the son of Bep Voskuijl, has accused Bep’s sister Nelly, who had close connections with soldiers in the Wehrmacht.2
In 2016 the Dutch filmmaker Thijs Bayens and the journalist Pieter van Twisk opened a new inquiry, building a team of some two dozen Dutch investigators, historians, and researchers. Seeking the perspective of someone “independent,” they also hired an American, Vince Pankoke, who had recently retired from a twenty-seven-year career as an FBI special agent. Pankoke treated the Anne Frank House not as a museum but as a crime scene, analyzing the little remaining physical evidence. He noticed a mark on the floor in front of the bookcase that revealed, to a policeman’s trained eye, the presence of something behind it—meaning that even if the Nazis had gone straight for the bookcase, that didn’t necessarily prove they had been tipped off to its significance.
With the help of specially 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 new theories. Among their discoveries was at least one of great value to historians: a cache of nearly a thousand receipts held in a collection of captured Nazi documents in the US National Archives, evidence of reward money paid to Dutch Jew-hunters—the equivalent of around forty-seven dollars per head.
In a “highly secure” office space outfitted with a 3D model of Prinsengracht 263 and a soundproof “MuteCube,” Pankoke’s team examined all the previous suspects as well as a new list of their own, promising to assess each against three criteria: Did this person have the knowledge necessary to betray the Franks, the motive to do so, and the opportunity? Meanwhile, HarperCollins—which, together with the city of Amsterdam and private donors, provided financial support for the operation—recruited Sullivan, the author of the well-received biography Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva as well as numerous other books, to embed with the team and chronicle their investigation.
In line with the secrecy surrounding the entire operation, the book was under strict embargo so that the team could announce their conclusions in a carefully orchestrated publicity rollout that began on January 16 of this year with a lengthy segment on 60 Minutes, two days before the publication date. The likely betrayer, they said, was Arnold van den Bergh: a wealthy Jewish notary who belonged to the Jewish Council, a group that, like its better-known counterparts in Warsaw, Łódź, and elsewhere, served as a liaison between the Nazi occupiers and the Jewish community whom the Nazis all but exterminated.
The announcement was explosive—though not in the way the team had hoped. The book came under immediate and intense attack from Dutch historians and others, including employees of both the Anne Frank House and the Anne Frank Foundation (a separate organization based in Switzerland, also founded by Otto Frank, that holds the copyright to most of Anne’s writings). Critics argued that Pankoke’s team had made unjustified assumptions and relied too heavily on circumstantial evidence. “Although the research is impressive, the story simply has too many loose ends,” Johannes Houwink ten Cate, a professor of genocide and Holocaust studies at the University of Amsterdam, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse.
Ambo Anthos, the publisher of the book’s Dutch translation, quickly announced that it was halting further printings. Two months later, after a group of prominent Dutch historians published a sixty-nine-page “refutation” of the book on the website of NIOD, the Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies,3 Ambo Anthos decided to pull it from the shelves entirely. The book is still for sale elsewhere, including in Germany and the United States.
The Betrayal of Anne Frank is badly organized and facilely written; it takes a strikingly uncritical tone toward Pankoke and his team and seems to track every tedious dead end in the investigation. Worse, it offers little historical analysis of life in Amsterdam during the war years, particularly regarding the role of the Jewish Council, whose members made the fatal but understandable gamble of cooperating with the Nazi authorities, hoping that by doing so they could mitigate the worst of the persecution and buy extra time for the Jewish population. My own reading turned up poor annotation and sloppy factual errors, including mischaracterizations of the circumstances around the writing and editing of Anne’s diary.
But the problems with this project are bigger than either the book or the investigation it purports to cover. The goal of the search, according to Bayens, was to “begin a public conversation” about tolerance and distrust as a bulwark against “incipient fascism” in Europe and elsewhere, while at the same time seeking justice for the Franks. That conversation has not happened. To the contrary: by focusing police-procedural style on the identification of a single culprit—a Jewish one, at that—the search for the betrayer of Prinsengracht 263 obscures the larger political realities of the Holocaust, in the Netherlands and elsewhere.
The software created for Pankoke and his team projected potential suspects onto a map of Amsterdam as colored dots, with members of the NSB (Dutch Nazi Party) appearing as blue, collaborators red, and informants yellow. The dots were “so close together,” Sullivan writes, “that they appeared as one large mass” over the neighborhood surrounding Prinsengracht 263. An SD informant owned a bike shop a block and a half away. A waiter whose name appeared on the Resistance’s “wanted list” lived a few doors down. Numerous NSB members lived in buildings bordering the courtyard. Pankoke later told a reporter that instead of who tipped off the police, the real question was how the inhabitants of the Secret Annex—Anne’s name for the hideout—stayed hidden.
Indeed, the number of possible suspects demonstrates just how dangerous the situation was for Jews in the Netherlands. Despite the widespread perception of the Dutch as a nation that largely resisted the Nazi occupiers—a perception that has been deeply challenged by historians in recent years—around 75 percent of Dutch Jews were murdered during the war, the highest death rate of any Western European country. As of early 1941, when the Nazis required Dutch Jews to register with the authorities, the community numbered around 140,000. About 107,000 were subsequently deported to camps, of whom fewer than 6,000 returned. About two thirds of the 25,000 or so Jews who went into hiding survived.
Historians have posited a number of factors to explain the low survival rate of Dutch Jews. The Netherlands is a low-lying, flat country without the dense forests that partisans and others were able to take advantage of elsewhere in Europe. Since Dutch society was relatively segregated, Jews were unlikely to have close non-Jewish friends who would help them find hiding places or support them in hiding. (This was not true for the residents of the Secret Annex, who were sustained by Otto’s employees.) But most significant seems to have been the general Dutch propensity—among Jews as well as non-Jews—to comply with the law.
This is precisely what the Jewish Council, formed in Amsterdam in 1941, has been criticized for. Chaired by Abraham Asscher, the heir to a major diamond company, and David Cohen, a professor and former president of the Committee for Jewish Refugees, the council provided services to the community that the Dutch government was no longer permitted to offer, such as education and health care. The council also created a newspaper that served as a central organ to disseminate information about new Nazi regulations, from the surrender of businesses and property to the prohibition on using swimming pools and sports facilities. When the Nazis imposed the yellow star, the council was given 569,355 cloth stars to distribute—four per person, to be paid for with ration coupons.
On a Friday in late June 1942, members of the Jewish Council were summoned at 10 PM—a standard power play by the Nazi administration, which seemed to enjoy forcing them to break the Sabbath—and told that “police-controlled labor contingents” were required for service in Germany. Margot Frank, then sixteen, was part of this first group to be called up; her summons, which arrived on July 5, precipitated the family’s flight into hiding. The previous year, as punishment for an anti-Nazi demonstration, the Nazis had rounded up several hundred Jewish men and deported them to Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Austria. None returned. Largely because of this, the council members hypothesized that “labor service,” despite all its unknowns, was preferable to what they believed to be certain death in a concentration camp. As Sullivan writes, they “assumed that the Germans had no intention of removing the entire Jewish community from the Netherlands and that the council’s role was to protect those in the most danger.” Later, Cohen admitted that he had misjudged the “unprecedented, murderous intentions of the Nazis.” But he was far from the only one to make that mistake.
The council tried to play for time. They haggled with the Nazis over how many Jews needed to report for each transport and tried to finagle as many exemptions as possible, including for council employees. In retrospect, many have seen the desire to protect their own as reflecting poorly on the council. “After the war, many people accused the Jewish Council of cooperation, indeed almost collaboration, with the Germans,” Sullivan writes. The fuzziness here—how does one define “almost collaboration”?—is indicative of a larger lack of sensitivity to the impossible position in which the council found itself.
In the summer of 1942, Auschwitz II/Birkenau, the extermination division of the camp, had just been established. (Auschwitz I, the original labor camp and administrative headquarters, was created in 1940.) Reports of mass extermination in Poland—the gas trucks that were running at Chełmno and Bełżec—were still rumors. Going into hiding, too, was dangerous; people believed that those who were caught would be deported immediately to penal camps. (In reality, nearly all Dutch Jewish deportees had the same destination: Auschwitz or Sobibór, another extermination camp on Polish territory.) As Bart van den Boom, one of the historians who contributed to the report challenging the findings of Pankoke’s team, has written:
The reality of Auschwitz and Sobibór was far beyond the imagination of most of the Dutch…. It was conceivable that the slow death that loomed with deportation was less of a risk than the quick death that would follow if you went into hiding and got caught.
Many also thought that the Germans would be defeated within a few months.
After the war, the Jewish Honor Court for the Netherlands, which was appointed by the Jewish community and had moral weight but not legal authority, investigated suspected collaborators, including members of the Jewish Council. Cohen was the only one who appeared in person; Arnold van den Bergh and four others were judged in absentia when they chose not to participate. For having “assisted in a number of anti-Jewish measures, including distributing the Jewish star, unfairly determining the lists of exemptions, and participating in the selection of deportees,” Van den Bergh was deprived for five years of the right to hold Jewish office or participate in honorary functions in the community. (The court drew a distinction between members of the council, such as Van den Bergh, and the co-chairmen, Asscher and Cohen, who were judged more severely.) Soon after the verdict, Van den Bergh was diagnosed with throat cancer; he died in 1950.
Otto Frank, the sole survivor of the eight people hiding at Prinsengracht 263, was liberated from Auschwitz in January 1945 and slowly made his way back to Amsterdam, arriving home that summer. The case for Arnold van den Bergh as his betrayer starts with an anonymous note that Otto may have received later that year. (The cold case team dates the note to late 1945, but the historians’ report casts doubt on this detail, as on many others.) It read:
Your hideout in Amsterdam was reported at the time to the Jüdische Auswanderung [Jewish Emigration] in Amsterdam, Euterpestraat, by A. van den Bergh, a resident at the time at Vondelpark, O Nassaulaan. At the J.A. was a whole list of addresses he submitted.
Van den Bergh worked as a notary, a profession with duties in the Netherlands that are more elaborate than those of contemporary American notaries. He was responsible for authorizing business deals, including witnessing contracts. Among the transactions over which he presided was the notorious sale of the art collection of Jacques Goudstikker, a Dutch Jewish dealer in Old Masters, to Hermann Göring. As of February 21, 1941, Jewish notaries were required to officially surrender their public functions, but Van den Bergh, like Otto Frank and many other Jews, seems to have found ways to continue working.
As a member of the Jewish Council, Van den Bergh, together with his wife and their three daughters, was initially exempt from deportation. (The council disbanded in September 1943 when almost everyone involved with it was deported, including Cohen and Asscher.) As an additional protection, he applied for and obtained “Calmeyer status,” which allowed him to be declassified as Jewish: under Nazi law in the Netherlands, Jews could be exempt from persecution if they could prove they had one non-Jewish parent. Many Dutch Jews sought to exploit this loophole, creating elaborately forged revisions to their family trees. The cases were adjudicated by a German lawyer named Hans Georg Calmeyer, who saved several thousand Jews by allowing many of these forgeries to pass.
Van den Bergh’s Calmeyer status also offered protection to his family. However, he lost that status in early 1944 when J.W.A. Schepers, a Nazi who was assigned to take over his notary business, denounced him to the authorities. (According to Pankoke et al., Schepers was angry because Van den Bergh played a “Jew trick” on him by making the business files inaccessible; the historians explain the problems with the takeover differently.)
Pankoke’s team argues that this is when things started to fall apart for Van den Bergh. Desperate, he is said to have called in favors from Nazi connections he developed through his business dealings and his former position on the Jewish Council. He found his youngest daughter a hiding place through the Resistance, but he allegedly went on the run: perhaps, the team suggests without offering evidence or explanation, to Castle Nijenrode, an estate south of Amsterdam owned by Alois Miedl, a German art dealer with whom Van den Bergh had worked closely. The castle was a hideout for “anybody that feared persecution in Germany,” including former collaborators, Sullivan writes. “If the Van den Berghs were at the castle, sharing space with German fugitives could hardly have felt safe,” she continues. “With Miedl now…unable to protect him, Van den Bergh might have needed to find some additional insurance.”
That’s a lot of conditionals, but more are coming. In order to protect his family, the team alleges, Van den Bergh supplied the Nazis with a list of addresses of Jews in hiding that he had supposedly been holding on to since his time with the Jewish Council. Sullivan writes:
It’s almost certain that the Jewish Council had lists of addresses of Jews in hiding. Through his key position on the Jewish Council, Van den Bergh would have had access to those lists. He may also have had access to the lists of addresses collected…at Camp Westerbork. Prinsengracht 263 could easily have been on a list in 1943 or 1944, placed there by a member of the resistance who’d been turned or by an informant.
As the historians demonstrate, it’s far from certain that the Jewish Council had such lists. The evidence on which the team relies is testimony from a German translator who “claimed to have overheard” a sergeant in the military police talking about the council in grossly anti-Semitic terms. Mail from Westerbork, the transit camp where Dutch Jews were held before deportation to the east, did not go through the Jewish Council, and even if it had, there is no evidence that any was sent to Prinsengracht 263, whose inhabitants knew better than to reveal their address to the outside world. The unrevised version of Anne’s diary includes several pages of heartbreaking letters she wished she could send to a close friend, as well as an imaginary reply from the other girl. Pfeffer did exchange letters with his fiancée, but Gies served as courier.
Even more incomprehensibly, Pankoke’s team uses statements by Gies and Otto Frank that seem to implicate Van den Bergh as evidence against him, such as Otto’s telling a Dutch journalist in the late 1940s that the family was “betrayed by Jews.” But such statements demonstrate only that Frank and Gies may have believed Van den Bergh to be the betrayer, thanks to the anonymous note—not that he actually was. (Note also the plural, “Jews,” which would suggest that there was a group of betrayers, rather than only one.) Most devastating to the team’s argument is the historians’ revelation that Van den Bergh, together with his whole family, was actually in hiding by early 1944. So much for both motive and opportunity.
If not Arnold van den Bergh, who did betray the Franks? It is hard to imagine that this question could ever be answered conclusively, simply because so few of the facts relating to the case can be relied upon. Indeed, it’s possible that the initial scenario, according to which Dettmann receives a tip-off call and passes the information to Silberbauer, did not unfold the way Sullivan describes it. The team argues that the phone call to Dettmann is a reason to rule out any suspect without Nazi connections, since it was unusual both that the call came directly to him and that the SD immediately acted on the information. But the information about the call comes from a police interrogation of Silberbauer himself in 1964, after his part in the arrest was exposed by the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. This was a man so insensitive and ill-informed that he looked through Anne’s diary after it was published to see if his own name was mentioned. He may well have fabricated details to protect himself or others.
If Silberbauer’s testimony is considered unreliable, a host of other possibilities opens up, including a scenario postulated recently by researchers at the Anne Frank House: that the SS were expecting to find stolen goods and discovered the people in hiding by chance. The idea that Anne’s fate was sealed by a random accident is difficult to swallow; far more satisfying to have a person to blame. We want to believe that things happen for a reason, regardless of whether we ascribe the explanation to God, superstition, or human action. But that theory strikes me as the most convincing, both because of the evidence presented and because it is truer to the way the Holocaust actually unfolded in the Netherlands.
Contrary to how most people imagine it, the Nazi administration was not a well-oiled extermination machine. There was a master plan for the Final Solution, but how it would be implemented was not self-evident. Decisions were made at every step of the way that determined the fates of thousands of people, from the granting of deportation exemptions to the number of people dispatched on each train. At any point, those outcomes could have been different. For instance, Anne’s friend Hanneli Goslar survived Bergen-Belsen because her family was able to buy Paraguayan passports, which meant that they could be exchanged for German prisoners of war and thus had special privileges in the camp; if the Franks had bought those passports, they too might have survived.
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.
Of course, the Nazis were ultimately responsible for Anne Frank’s death, from Hitler and Eichmann all the way down to the lowly functionary Silberbauer and his henchmen. But on a global level, Anne Frank was betrayed by all those who had the ability to help Jews and chose not to. The Dutch queen betrayed her by abandoning the nation; one can imagine a different outcome had Queen Wilhelmina, like King Christian X of Denmark, stood up to the Nazi occupiers and defended the Jews. The US government betrayed her by declining to approve visas for the Frank family to travel via New York to Cuba in 1941—the only real chance they had to escape the Netherlands. The Allies betrayed her by declining to bomb the railway lines to Auschwitz. The nations of the world betrayed her by turning away Jewish refugees. In imagining that a single person could have been responsible for Anne Frank’s death—and not the tidal wave of fascism that once threatened to engulf the world and may do so yet—are we not betraying her still?
Carol Ann Lee, Roses from the Earth: The Biography of Anne Frank (Viking, 1999) and The Hidden Life of Otto Frank (Viking, 2002). ↩
Melissa Müller, Anne Frank: The Biography (Metropolitan, 1998). ↩
“‘The Betrayal of Anne Frank’: A Refutation,” a report by Bart Wallet, Petra van den Boomgaard, Bart van der Boom, Raymund Schütz, Laurien Vastenhout, and Aaldrik Hermans, March 2022. ↩