SOUWIE ON . . . The Arts

Who betrayed Anne Frank? Why big data and big egos failed to find the truth.

Some five years ago a crack team of  worldwide experts were assembled to solve one of modern history’s biggest cold cases: the betrayal of Anne Frank and her family to the Nazis. Hidden for almost two years in a canal side warehouse in the Jordaan district of Amsterdam, Frank and her family were discovered on the 4th of August, 1944.  

Frank was taken to Auschwitz concentration camp and finally brought to the Bergen-Belsen camp where she died in February, 1945. The tragic ending of a young life so full of hope and optimism makes Anne Frank’s diary one of the most poignantly popular accounts of Jewish life in Nazi-occupied Europe.

Perhaps the strong desire to find out who made sure this story didn’t get the Hollywood ending that so many would have liked explains the powerful pull of this particular mystery. Anne Frank’s father, Otto, who died in 1980, was thought to have had a strong suspicion of their betrayer but never shared the person’s identity publicly. An investigation by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in 2003 looked into claims against two suspects but concluded that it was not possible to reconstruct the events of that period.

 Not trying to point fingers or prosecute

That was then, now we live in an era of big data, DNA testing and powerful algorithms whose number-crunching abilities are irresistible. Dutch filmmaker, Thijs Bayans, described the amount of relevant data as “overwhelming” and “at least 20 to 25km of files”. With the help of Amsterdam-based big data company, Xomnia and a team of forensic experts lead by retired FBI agent, Vince Pankoke, the truth appeared closer than it had in decades. “We are not trying to point fingers or prosecute. I am just trying to solve the last case of my career. There is no statute of limitation on the truth.”

Yet, over 4 years later, the conclusions drawn by Pankoke and the team, published amid much fanfare in a book titled, The Betrayal of Anne Frank – a cold case investigation, have raised more questions than they have answered. The truth was watered down to 85% and came in the form of a Dutch Jewish notary, Arnold van den Bergh, who died of throat cancer in 1950. A member of the Jewish council in Amsterdam, an administrative body that the Nazis forced Jews to establish, Van den Bergh, so the reasoning goes, would have had access to the names and hiding places of fellow Jews.

One doesn’t need big data or number crunching to understand that according to a number of Holocaust historians, there is no evidence that the Jewish Council drew up such a list of addresses of hiding places. Clearly, there were good reasons not to do so and even stronger reasons for Jews in hiding not to provide this highly monitored body with information of their whereabouts.

Slanderous nonsense

Johannes Houwink ten Cate, a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies in Amsterdam, told the Dutch daily newspaper NRC Handelsblad that he had never seen any evidence of such a list in 35 years of research and that Van den Bergh himself was in hiding for much of 1944. Bart van der Boom of Leiden University called the findings “slanderous nonsense.”

Dutch publishers, Ambo Anthos, have now suspended publication of the book. Harper Collins Germany have cancelled release of the book, planned for March, and are reviewing the manuscript, until further notice. Harper Collins USA have yet to comment as has the book’s Canadian author, Rosemary Sullivan.

Where did it all go so wrong? Perhaps the answer lies with an investigation by the Anne Frank  House museum, published in December 2016 which concluded that the Franks may have been discovered by chance instead of being betrayed. “Despite decades of research, betrayal as a point of departure has delivered nothing conclusive.”, said Ronald Leopold, the executive director of the Anne Frank House.

Is it time to let the matter rest? To leave history with its secrets of betrayal and retribution and remember instead the courage and optimism of Anne Frank. A young woman, who’s unstinting faith in humankind is so movingly captured in one of her last diary entries, “In spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Souwie Buis, Den Haag, 9th February 2022

Souwie Buis is a freelance journalist, podcaster and radio host. Based in the Hague, born in South Africa she considers herself a citizen of the world. Art lover from a young age, her special passions are literature and performance arts, especially flamenco! She is always happy to hear from a fellow aficionado and to reach out via one of her social media handles if you have arts news or events to share.