Was it the thieving warehouse manager? A suspicious neighbor? A loose-lipped relative of one of the rescuers? Or a notorious informant who routinely tipped off Amsterdam’s Nazi occupiers to hidden Jews?
The answer, according to Rosemary Sullivan’s intermittently gripping “The Betrayal of Anne Frank,” is none of the above.
On Aug. 4, 1944, 15-year-old Anne, her sister and parents, and four family friends were rousted by an SS officer and Dutch police from the warehouse annex where they had hidden for more than two years. They were deported on the last train to Auschwitz. Anne died of typhus in another concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen, weeks before it was liberated — one of about 100,000 Dutch Jews murdered by the Nazis.
Of the eight people hiding in the annex, only Anne’s father, the businessman Otto Frank, survived. In 1947, he published his daughter’s adolescent diary, to this day among the most heartbreaking artifacts of the Holocaust.
Since then, as in an Agatha Christie mystery or game of Clue, suspects for the role of the family’s “betrayer” have proliferated. Two Dutch investigations, in 1947-48 and 1963-64, targeted the warehouse manager, Willem van Maaren, but were inconclusive. Historians have proposed competing hypotheses without definitive proof.
“The Betrayal of Anne Frank” is the meticulous official account of a five-year-long “cold case” investigation purporting, finally, to reveal the culprit — as well as why his identity has remained concealed for so long. The investigative project, initiated by the Dutch filmmaker Thijs Bayens with the assistance of journalist Pieter van Twisk, also is producing a documentary.
Sullivan describes the Cold Case Team’s interdisciplinary methods, from criminal profiling, historical research and crowdsourcing to a Microsoft artificial intelligence program that found connections within a blizzard of archival documents. But the book is most engrossing as a portrait of wartime Amsterdam, a city of conflicting and cross-cutting loyalties, where personal peril could erase the line between heroism and villainy. “The Cold Case Team … wanted to understand what happens to a population under enemy occupation when ordinary life is threaded with fear,” Sullivan writes.
The book’s cover tips its hand, suggesting that the identity of the betrayer is “less a mystery unsolved than a secret well kept.” Among those apparently keeping the secret, amazingly enough, were Otto Frank and the most famous of the family’s Dutch rescuers, Miep Gies, who died in 2010 at 100. Both an employee of Otto Frank and a close friend, Gies helped provision the families in the annex. After the raid, she salvaged Anne’s diary.
As Sullivan tells it, an anonymous note sent to Frank after the war offered the betrayer’s identity: the notary Arnold van den Bergh, a member of Amsterdam’s controversial Jewish Council, which helped implement Nazi policies in the hope of protecting at least some Jews (including themselves). Frank took the note seriously enough to give a copy to Dutch police in the 1960s.
Under the leadership of former FBI special agent Vincent Pankoke, the Cold Case Team found and authenticated that key document. They also decoded its historical context, which they say included van den Bergh’s access to the addresses of hidden Jews, his high-level Nazi contacts, his frantic efforts to protect his family from deportation to the death camps, and his likely use of the addresses as a bargaining chip.
Betraying the annex fugitives, if the notary was indeed the culprit, was nothing personal — but also intensely personal, a desperate means of survival in impossible times. Van den Bergh, who died in 1950, was “put into a devil’s dilemma by circumstances for which he was not to blame,” Sullivan writes.
The investigators speculate, convincingly, that Frank chose not to publicize the information because it implicated a fellow Jew — and he was fearful of stoking continuing European anti-Semitism.
An emerita professor at the University of Toronto and a prolific writer of nonfiction, Sullivan is best known for her acclaimed 2015 biography “Stalin’s Daughter.” In 2006, she chronicled another story of Jewish rescue in “Villa Air-Bel,” about a safe house for artists and intellectuals outside Marseille.
The first section of “The Betrayal of Anne Frank,” lays out the background, touching only lightly on events in the diary itself, and its complicated cultural afterlife. Sullivan concentrates on explaining how the Frank family and their friends ended up in the annex — and what happened after they were arrested.
Then she painstakingly escorts us down various blind alleys that the investigative team pursued, as it whittled 30 theories down to a dozen possible scenarios. Sullivan details and debunks some of these at length. Van Maaren is exculpated because of his lack of Nazi sympathies, but also because he was likely “happy with the status quo.” Other suspects — including the sister of one Dutch helper and a Jewish woman turned prodigious Nazi informant — lacked the trifecta of knowledge, motive, and opportunity.
How much readers care about these dead-ends will depend on both their investment in the Anne Frank saga and their patience. Sullivan’s meandering narrative can be tedious when it focuses on the mystery’s many red herrings. “Just tell us already!” readers are apt to think. Sullivan’s dissection of Nazi-occupied Amsterdam’s labyrinthine ethical byways – and how genocidal war produced moral rot — may be a greater contribution than the true-crime story that inspired the project.
On the Jan. 16 episode of “60 Minutes” that broke the book’s news, Pankoke conceded that his team had not proven its case against van den Bergh “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In the days since, some historians have questioned the investigation’s conclusions. Pankoke may have anticipated the furor. In the book’s afterword, he invites the public to “fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle.”
THE BETRAYAL OF ANNE FRANK: A Cold Case Investigation
By Rosemary Sullivan
Harper, 383 pages, $29.99
Julia M. Klein, the Forward’s contributing book critic, has been a two-time finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.