On January 17, 2022, the book The Betrayal of Anne Frank by Rosemary Sullivan was published in a worldwide media campaign. In it, a self-proclaimed “Cold Case Team” identifies a new prime suspect in the alleged betrayal of Anne Frank and her seven housemates of the Secret Annex. Very soon after initial news reports faithfully reported on the team’s findings, a strong backlash arose from historians and others criticizing the study and its firm conclusion, based on empirical, epistemological, and moral grounds. To understand both the book’s findings and the criticism of them, it is necessary to outline the unique circumstances of this book and its research.
The “Cold Case Team” documented in the book was created in 2017 at the initiative of Dutch film and television producer Thijs Bayens. He gathered an international group of investigators led by former FBI agent Vince Pankoke to make another attempt to clarify the circumstances surrounding the arrest on August 4, 1944 of Anne Frank and the other people in hiding. The Frank and Van Pels families and dentist Fritz Pfeffer had been in hiding for over two years at the time of their arrest, and there were some indications that an informant had been responsible. On the morning in question, the police were informed of the people in hiding in the Amsterdam building via an anonymous phone call. A few burglaries, of which Anne writes in her diary, may also have led to the secret of the hideout getting out. A third possible source of betrayal lies in the intimate network built up to aid the people in hiding. But an unfortunate coincidence could not be ruled out either. Two police investigations, in 1946-48 and 1963-64, two biographies of Anne Frank and the 2003 book Who Betrayed Anne Frank? by David Barnouw and Gerrold van der Stroom did not establish a conclusive informant. It was clear from the start of the new book The Betrayal of Anne Frank that the Cold Case Team found the irresolute outcome of the earlier investigations “unsatisfactory,” which may have led to an over-desire to identify a prime suspect with great certainty.
While the author of The Betrayal of Anne Frank, Rosemary Sullivan, was not actually involved in the Cold Case Team’s research it serves as the basis for her book. As such, it is on this basis that historians should judge the research findings. The book takes the form of a loosely written report on the research process and its results. The investigators “Vince,” “Thijs,” and “Monique” are the main characters in this book. The book follows their investigative process in chronological order, but at the same time seems to be structured towards the revelation of the prime suspect. For example, the main piece of evidence, an anonymous note with a name on it, is only presented in the later chapters when in fact it logically must have been known about at a much earlier stage of the investigation. The desire for a dramatic book structure may have influenced its design, at the expense of faithfully following the research trajectory.
In the book and in the press release, after ticking off a series of “suspects,” the team determines the Jewish notary Arnold van den Bergh to be the most likely informant, based on a triad of possessing the right 1) knowledge, 2) motive, and 3) opportunity to commit the betrayal. At that point, the reader is surprised because the team has brushed aside many other suspects due to inconclusive evidence. But with even less “evidence,” the notary was suddenly put forward as the prime suspect. In fact, the only evidence is the anonymous note with a name and address that Otto Frank seems to have received in 1945, but of which only a copy, retyped by himself much later, has survived. The rest of the argument is based on speculation and, above all, on the cessation of further investigation into the many remaining open ends.
To keep it short: There is no evidence that Van den Bergh knew about the Secret Annex. He, therefore, had no knowledge. Surprisingly, the team did not investigate whether the notary himself and his wife went into hiding. It now appears that they did, in the village of Laren. The notary, therefore, had no motive to reveal the hidden housemates of the Secret Annex. Due to the special circumstances of the phone call that fateful morning, the team claims the informant must have had some high-level connections to the German police or high-ranking officials. Van den Bergh had no special connections whatsoever. He was a member of the Jewish Council, but that did not give him privileged access to the officer who had been notified of the hideout. The notary therefore also missed something that you could reasonably call an opportunity.
Soon after the publication of the book, a storm of criticism arose. The historians Bart Wallet, Laurien Vastenhout, and Bart van der Boom, journalist Natasha Gerson, and Ruben Vis, the general secretary of the Dutch Israelite Church Association, were among the first to offer substantive criticism. The critics provided more biographical insights and other information that was widely available but not consulted by the research team. Partly via social media, many of the team’s findings were undermined within two days.
However, criticism also extended beyond the problematic empirical findings. Three weeks later, this additional criticism seems to focus on the following points:
- The research team lacked a broader historical perspective, first and foremost with regard to the Jewish context during the war and in post-war Netherlands.
- Partly due to the set-up and ambition of the investigation to reveal a prime suspect, the team suffered from a narrow “tunnel vision.”
- The team was too focused on garnering media attention from the outset, partly due to the need to generate funds, which may have influenced their findings.
- The prime suspect concerns a Jewish notary and a member of the Jewish Council. To what extent does this result depend on the reproduction of outdated stereotypes of the Jewish Council? In particular, experts have now falsified the assumption that the Council maintained a list with addresses of Jewish hiding places (Der Spiegel, January 25, 2022).
There is thus every indication that the investigation documented in The Betrayal of Anne Frank is far from definitive. A project in which financing and secrecy are more important than knowledge production is highly questionable. It is also problematic that in this project, the narrow question of “betrayal” is made central instead of a wider understanding of human figurations in times of genocidal violence. Just one day after the great media spectacle, the Dutch satirical website De Speld headlined: “New Research: Nazis probably responsible for Anne Frank’s death.”
Remco Ensel (Radboud University Nijmegen) has written in the field of Holocuast Studies, antisemitism and memory studies. He recently published Anne Frank on the Postwar Dutch Stage. Performance, Memory, Affect (Routledge, 2022).
Leen Spruit — February 10, 2022
Exemplar of well-founded historical criticism