Anne Frank is a 20th-century icon and a symbol of humankind’s capacity to wreak horror on the innocent and the young. For two years, in hiding in Amsterdam, she recorded her thoughts in a diary that captures the imagination, the highs and the lows, the fears, and the hopes of a girl on the cusp of adulthood.
On August 4, 1944, just a few months before the liberation of the Netherlands from Nazi rule, she, her sister, her parents, and the Van Pels family, with whom they were in hiding, were apprehended from the Franks’ secret annex at Prinsengracht 263. Duly carted off to Auschwitz for extermination, Otto Frank, Anne’s father, would be the sole survivor (he was freed by the Soviets in 1945) and guardian of his daughter’s remarkable writings.
The desire to know the circumstances of the disclosure of the annex is perfectly understandable, and over the years there have been numerous criminal, journalistic, and literary investigations. None has produced a definitive answer to the question: Who revealed the Franks’ secret hiding place?
Written by Rosemary Sullivan, this book is the latest effort, drawing on a project led by Dutch journalist Pieter van Twisk and filmmaker Thijs Bayens, who led a “cold-case team” of 31 investigators and 21 consultants.
The result is a deep dive into life in the Netherlands in the grotesque and difficult year that was 1944. It describes the lives of occupiers and occupied, of perpetrators and victims, of collaborators and those who looked away. For this alone, Sullivan has made a significant contribution, even if the narrative only begins to draw the reader in late in the game, after a long haul through much introductory material, many characters who turn out to be insignificant, and a raft of theories that are raised, then knocked down.
No criminal, journalistic, or literary investigation has produced a definitive answer to the question: Who revealed the Franks’ secret hiding place?
What might have been a page-turner doesn’t begin to seize until Chapter 35 (out of 43), a few hundred pages in, as attention focuses on the typewritten copy of a brief, anonymous note apparently handed to Otto Frank soon after the war ended. Long known about, it asserted that Arnold van den Bergh, a Jewish Dutch notary, reported the addresses of a raft of Jewish hiding places to the Nazis’ Central Agency for Jewish Emigration, including the one where the Franks were hiding. This man, the cold-case team concludes, is most likely the person who gave up the information that led to the discovery of Anne Frank.
It is reasonable for a historian to explore such matters with a speculative eye, unburdened by the evidentiary standards of criminal law, but by characterizing the work as a “cold-case investigation” involving a retired F.B.I. special agent, the ante is upped. I read the pages with an eye honed by decades spent seeking to prove facts about long-ago crimes in a variety of courts. I may not be a typical reader, but I feel bound to share that the conclusion reached would have zero prospect of being endorsed by any court, or anyone with any modicum of legal training (the 52 members of the team do not seem to include a lawyer).
At its highest, the material might allow the view that the notary could not be excluded as a possible person of interest, but no more. Historical detective work is notoriously hazardous, as I have learned in my own writings and cases. The material available is partial and limited, and dangerously open to interpretation by reference to the values and techniques of today, rather than to those of the time when the events occurred. To speculate on the motive of any actor in the absence of living witnesses, as the team does, is a deeply perilous enterprise, one that should cause a steep tilt toward caution.
This is all the more so when your conclusion is premised on a single document that is undated, anonymous, and only a retyped copy. Otto Frank never identified Arnold van den Bergh as his family’s betrayer, although Sullivan quotes Frank as having told a Dutch journalist that “we were betrayed by Jews.” It is worth reading the endnote, which reveals the source for this “fact” to be triple hearsay: Frank supposedly said this to a journalist in the 1940s, who reported it to another journalist in the 1960s, who shared it with the cold-case team five decades later. The words quoted are of no probative value, and the fact they have been placed in quotes in the way they have is unfortunate.
Ultimately, the team seems to fit the interpretation of an unproven fact to support another bit of hearsay—described as a “bombshell”—concerning the existence of a list of more than 500 addresses of Jews in hiding said to have been held by the Jewish Council, of which Van den Bergh was a member. To establish his involvement, you would have to prove: a) that such a list existed; b) that it included Prinsengracht 263; c) that the list was available to Van den Bergh; and d) that he handed it over to the relevant German authorities. None of this is established. Instead, we get speculative insinuations as to Van den Bergh’s character: an address was “probably” a cover; the team considered his status as a protected Jew to be “suspicious”; the team thought it “highly probable” that he had a list; etc. This is a highly caveated book without real evidence, a farrago of tidbits which leads nowhere.
The perspective offered by Van den Bergh’s granddaughter, whose identity is not disclosed, is particularly troubling. Sullivan writes that she was shocked by the note, and quotes her as asking, “Why would someone betray others like this?” The author proceeds to ascribe to the granddaughter the suggestion that her grandfather must have been forced to operate with the Germans, that she could not imagine his having given away the address, but that if he did it would only have been to save his own family’s life. None of this material is presented in quotation marks: it is paraphrased speculation and of no authority or real value.
Ultimately, The Betrayal of Anne Frank induces a feeling of discomfort. The conclusion is likely to have nefarious consequences for the notary’s reputation, and possibly also for that of his descendants. It will be used by some to distract from the principal culprits—those who designed and implemented the policies that led to the murder of Anne Frank. If Van den Bergh had any role or responsibility for what happened at Prinsengracht 263, the evidence is not to be found in this book.
Philippe Sands, Q.C., is a British and French lawyer, a professor of law at University College London, and a Judith Pisar Visiting Professor of Law. He is the author of several books, including East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” and the forthcoming The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive, based on his hit BBC podcast of the same name