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Searching for Anne Frank’s betrayer, finding a moral dilemma

A new book renews debate over how to respond to Jews who helped the Nazis

Portraits of Anne Frank at the Anne Frank House Museum in Amsterdam. Frank’s family lived with other Jews in a secret annex at the house for two years during World War II, until someone told the Nazis of their hiding place. The identity of the informer has been a mystery for decades. (Peter Dejong/AP)
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The Netherlands may have a reputation today as a tolerant, liberal country, but it was a particularly terrifying place to be a Jew under the Nazi occupation during World War II. By the end of the war, the Netherlands had the worst record of Jewish deaths in Western Europe — 73 percent of its Jews were murdered, a far higher share than in France, Belgium, Denmark or even fascist Italy. Tens of thousands went into hiding, and about one-third of those were betrayed, then deported, imprisoned and subject to near-certain death.

Anne Frank is the most famous of those hidden Dutch Jews, and the question of who betrayed her and the seven others who vanished from an annex behind a bookcase in her father’s Amsterdam warehouse has remained an unfinished chapter in her ubiquitous diary. Now a new theory has emerged, vexing and disturbing, and with it the most wrenching of moral dilemmas: What happens when evil comes from within?

The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation,” by Rosemary Sullivan, was just released with a sophisticated marketing campaign that included a lengthy segment on “60 Minutes.” The book follows the work of a years-long “cold case” investigation that employed law enforcement techniques and artificial intelligence to try to finger the culprit. Its conclusion, couched in expected qualifiers, was, as the sleuths put it, “shocking.”

The investigators’ best guess is that Arnold van den Bergh, a respected Jewish notary and businessman, betrayed his fellow Jews.

A Jew contributed to the Nazi genocide. A victim had become a criminal.

Perhaps unintentionally, perhaps not, the revelations in Sullivan’s book have muddied the roiling waters of Holocaust remembrance, pulling Anne Frank’s iconic story into what the Israeli scholar Rivka Brot calls “the gray zone,” where good and evil are scrambled by extreme circumstances and true responsibility for horrific crimes is thus harder to assign.

How are we to judge van den Bergh? According to Sullivan’s narrative, told largely through the perspective of Vince Pankoke, a retired FBI agent who led the investigative team, van den Bergh had a list of Jewish hiding places and surreptitiously leaked the information to the Nazi authorities, hoping to ensure that his own family was spared. (It worked. They were.) He did this, they assert, after other attempts to secure safety — including officially changing his identity to that of a non-Jew — failed. Van den Bergh might not even have known that the Franks were secretly living at Prinsengracht 263 along the canal. It may only have been an address to him, a random ticket to salvation.

Still, he must have known that exposing the hidden Jews would put their lives in mortal danger — and indeed, Otto Frank, Anne’s father, was the only one to survive. If van den Bergh did deliver Jews to the Nazis, he disobeyed classic Jewish law when strictly applied. One is permitted to violate commandments to preserve one own’s life or the life of another, says the Talmud, the repository of rabbinical law and teaching — except for three violations that are not allowed under any circumstances: idol worship, forbidden sexual relations and bloodshed.

Van den Bergh facilitated bloodshed.

“There clearly is a gray zone,” Michael Berenbaum, a Holocaust scholar and ordained rabbi, said in an interview. “This, however, is a red line. This is one of the three things you cannot do.”

And yet Berenbaum’s own scholarship shows that the Holocaust was replete with varying, heartbreaking interpretations of these moral values. The Jewish Councils created by the Nazis to control the Jewish population and implement Nazi decrees were often asked to draw up lists for deportation, placing the heads of councils in the agonizing position of literally deciding who would live and who would die. As Berenbaum details in his book “The World Must Know,” rabbis across Nazi-occupied lands who advised the councils’ leaders relied on the same texts and the same inherited wisdom, but they often issued opposing directives.

In the Kovno ghetto in central Lithuania, the rabbi reluctantly told the leaders to draw up a list and save as many lives as possible, even though many others would be sacrificed. In Lithuania’s Vilna ghetto, the rabbi came to the opposite conclusion. (The council leaders ignored him.) In the ghetto at Bereza Kartuska in then-occupied Poland, the entire Jewish Council took their own lives rather than participate in deportation. These were, to use a term coined by the scholar Lawrence Langer, “choiceless choices.”

Journalist and historian Anne Applebaum has written eloquently on the decisions of collaborators and dissenters within authoritarian societies. Her observations could well apply to Jews forced to make choiceless choices during the Holocaust. “The personal, the political, the intellectual, and the historical combine differently within every human brain, and the outcomes can be unpredictable,” she observed in the Atlantic in 2020.

If van den Bergh did decide to surrender other Jewish lives in the expectation — or desperate hope — that he would preserve his own, his choice can be seen not on one side of a bright red line but inside that excruciating gray zone that Brot explicates.

“The reality of the mass atrocities and the prolonged rule of terror blurred the boundary between victim and perpetrator,” Brot told Haaretz in 2019, “and thereby created a distinctive type of victim. These were ‘complex victims,’ which means individuals who were victims of a system of oppression and violence but at the same time harmed other victims.”

What does it mean, then, to name van den Bergh — who died of cancer in 1950 — as the likely betrayer of the most well-known Jewish face of the Holocaust? In the closing pages of her book, Sullivan acknowledges that the cold-case team members were worried about sharing their revelations with the world, knowing how powerful and upsetting they would be. She hastens to say that van den Bergh was “not ultimately responsible” for the deaths of the residents of Prinsengracht 263.

“He did not turn over information out of wickedness or for self-enrichment, as so many others had. Like Otto Frank’s, his goal was simple: to save his family. That he succeeded while Otto failed is a terrible fact of history,” she writes.

But the team members’ responsibility is deeper than they acknowledge. In the days following their shocking revelation, scholars have questioned the evidence backing up their findings — in particular the key assertion that van den Bergh, as a onetime member of the Jewish Council in Amsterdam — would have been privy to a list of hidden Jews.

“No one had lists of hidden Jews, except for some organizations that hid children,” Berenbaum explained. “It was dangerous enough that Jewish organizations had membership lists which could be confiscated. All hiding would have been coded, if it existed at all — too dangerous to have it any other way.”

With so fundamental a question hanging over this investigation, was it fair not only to van den Bergh and his family, but to other living Jews, to trumpet Jewish complicity in the Holocaust? According to the book, Otto Frank himself was said to have known of van den Bergh’s name and kept it a secret for fear of stoking more antisemitism. After the book’s revelations were made public, the Daily Mail in Britain ran a headline that began: “Anne Frank was betrayed by a JEWISH notary.”

“We have to ask: Why has this become so sensationalized?” Erica Brown, vice provost at Yeshiva University, said in an interview. “We are saturated with information about the Holocaust. This is getting attention because it feeds into an impulse to exonerate the criminals and put blame on the victims.”

She added: “I am deeply disturbed by the rush to judgment and the almost decontextualization of the circumstances. Hold up a mirror. Who would I have been in this situation? Could I soften my judgment — not remove it, but soften it?”

Brown’s mother and grandparents survived the Holocaust, and to do so they may have had to make excruciating ethical and moral decisions. If it were her, she said, “I want to believe that I would not turn in another family. But in my heart of hearts, can I say that I would not do anything to save my life and the life of my family? I could not.”

Neither, perhaps, could Arnold van den Bergh.

Jane Eisner, a regular Book World contributor, is the director of academic affairs at the Columbia Journalism School. She is writing a book about Carole King.

The Betrayal of Anne Frank

A Cold Case Investigation

By Rosemary Sullivan

Harper. 383 pp. $29.99