UU historian: 'investigation on Anne Frank's betrayer can hardly be taken seriously’

Photos: Ivar Pel

You've probably seen it in the newspapers: an international "cold case team" led by a former FBI agent has conducted an investigation to identify the person who betrayed Anne Frank's family back in 1944. The Betrayal of Anne Frank, a book about the investigation, is currently ranking high among the best-selling titles in the Netherlands and a documentary is in the works, too. Spoiler alert: Jewish notary Arnold van den Bergh is named as the traitor who denounced the Frank family and the others hiding with them.

That statement soon came under fire, however. Dutch historians have criticised the investigation fiercely, saying the evidence is much too meagre, not to mention there are solid reasons to remove Van der Bergh from the list of possible betrayers. The Dutch publicist of the book has meanwhile apologised.

A thesis written by UU historian Petra van den Boomgaard plays a crucial role in the historians' criticism. She conducted extensive research into the so-called Calmeyer cases, Jewish Dutch nationals and refugees who tried to have their registration as a Jewish person removed during the war, to prevent deportation. Her conclusions are gathered in the book Voor de Nazi’s Geen Jood (Not a Jew for the Nazis, Ed.), which came out in 2019.

Fraudulent evidence
Van den Boogaard explains that, right after the start of the German occupation, all Jewish Dutch people had to register themselves. "But as soon as they found out about the consequences, thousands of people tried to show that they were not Jewish, using all sorts of fraudulent evidence. These requests were handled by an agency under the supervision of German legal expert Hans Calmeyer. My research shows that approximately three thousand people survived the war that way".

Notary Van den Bergh, who is now pointed out as the betrayer by the cold case team, was one of the people who benefited from the Calmeyer procedure: "With the help of two lawyers from the resistance, he managed to acquire a quarter-Jewish status, thanks to which his family was saved. They weren't taken away".

At least, not at first. Eventually, Van den Bergh did find himself in danger. When Anne Frank and her family were found in the secret annex, on August 4, 1944, Van den Bergh had been hiding for some time as well. "We know this thanks to a statement of a lawyer who was part of the resistance. He found out in time that Van den Bergh’s status as a quarter-Jew was going to be reversed. A notary of the National Socialist Movement (NSB in the Dutch acronym) was interested in moving to the Van den Bergh's property, so he went through his file. Calmeyer had no way other than to reverse the status – something he didn’t do often."

Lacking evidence
The cold case team claims that Van den Bergh panicked and revealed the names of the people hiding from the Nazis in the secret annex. But Van den Boomgaard's thesis shows that the notary had already gone into hiding in January, 1944. His two daughters even went into hiding in October 1943. "It’s highly unlikely that someone would still reveal names of other people in hiding to the Germans whilst in their own hiding place. The fact that Van den Bergh was in hiding at the time of the betrayal of the Frank family is simply not mentioned in the story told by the cold case team".

But that's not all. The cold case refers to an anonymous note which Historians say is not enough evidence. Similarly, the investigators mention a list of names of Jewish people that went onto transport, but it’s highly questionable whether such lists ever existed.

Van den Boomgaard: "The cold case team points out Van den Bergh as the "most likely" betrayer. But if you go public with such a firm conclusion, you have to provide rock-solid evidence. And such evidence is simply lacking. So much so that it only took a week for a group of Dutch historians to put their claims into question. Look, I can’t say that Van den Bergh wasn’t the betrayer. But drawing the conclusion that he was, that's going way too far".

So why is the cold case team so adamant in its claims? Van den Boomgaard has a theory: "the fact that Van den Bergh was in hiding doesn’t fit the narrative of these investigators. I think this information was just too inconvenient for the authors. My book is mentioned in the literature list, so apparently, they did consult it. Personally, I was never in touch with them. They mention me in the acknowledgements but they misspelt my name".

Check, check, double check
Van den Boomgaard prefers not to say anything about the investigation method used by the cold case team. "I don’t know enough about that. But, when conducting historical research in general, you should always check and double-check your findings. The more sources you have to support a conclusion, the better".

The cold case team claims to have used the latest investigation techniques, such as artificial intelligence. "Of course it’s an enrichment to apply new methods", reacts Van den Boomgaard. "But it must be done under proper academic supervision. I have a strong impression that it simply didn't happen in this case. No, we can hardly take this investigation seriously".

That is not only unfortunate, she emphasises, but also harmful. After all, although the conclusions may be wobbly, the investigation has already been widely publicised around the world, which has a considerable impact on the Jewish community and the relatives of notary Van den Bergh. 'I teach the course Transitional Justice at University College Utrecht. Lesson 1 is about the 'do no harm' principle: research should never prevail over the interests of victims".

Red flags
Researchers must think carefully about the possible damage they would cause by bringing out certain information, argues the historian. "Especially when there are so many caveats to your accusations. In this case, there were a number of red flags. Should you go public with this conclusion when you're not 100 per cent sure? However, the book was already piled up in bookstores that same week. I heard there’s a documentary in the making as well and Netflix is interested in the story… Apparently, there were huge commercial interests to go ahead and publish this story".

Will we ever find out what happened with regard to the betrayal of the secret annex? Van den Boomgaard fears we will not. "The evidence is simply lacking. Besides, it was too long ago. The tricky thing is that the objections of Dutch historians hardly reach the international public. American TV channel CBS devoted an entire episode of its 60 Minutes series to the betrayal, and millions of people watched it. People can look for a more nuanced take on the story afterwards, but the first image will stick."