Hi-tech probe into Anne Frank betrayal
FOR nearly 75 years, some of the greatest investigative minds have tried to figure out who tipped off the Nazis about Anne Frank and the seven other Jews who were hiding behind a movable bookcase in Amsterdam.
Now a former FBI investigator working with a production company hopes the decades-old mystery can be solved with the help of a new mind – an artificial one.
Vince Pankoke, who spent a chunk of his FBI career investigating Colombian drug cartels, has assembled 20 researchers, data analysts and historians to look into what he calls “one of the biggest cold cases” of the 20th century.
The most unconventional member of his team is a piece of specialised software that can cross-reference millions of documents – police reports, lists of Nazi spies, investigative files for Frank family sympathisers – to find connections and new leads.
Proditione Media, a production company in the Netherlands, is soliciting donations to help fund Pankoke’s investigation, which will become the subject of a podcast – and possibly a documentary.
The company that asked Pankoke to lead the investigation has also asked people to submit documents on its website. Already the investigation has generated new interest – and new information – Pankoke, 59, says.
“The bottom line is until this day there is nothing that’s really held water or been definitive. The point of the investigation is factfinding just to discover the truth. There is no statute of limitations on the truth,” he said.
Anne Frank’s family spent more than two years in the secret annexe at the back of her father’s store. They were discovered on a summer day in 1944 and sent to concentration camps. Before World War II was over, seven of the eight hiders were dead, including Anne, who died of typhus at age 15 at Bergen-Belsen camp in Germany.
Her father Otto – the only person who hid behind the bookcase and survived – spent his life trying to figure out who tipped off the Nazis. He also published his daughter’s diary, which chronicled the rise of anti-Semitism in the Netherlands and has become required reading for students across the world.
He long suspected his family was turned in by Willem van Maaren, a recently hired employee who was not in on the secret behind the bookcase. Van Maaren was suspicious and would set “traps” to discover anyone in the office after hours.
In 1963, Otto Frank told a Dutch newspaper: “We suspected him all along.”
Through the decades, others have been identified as potential betrayers, including a prominent Dutch Nazi by the name of Tonny Ahlers, and the wife of an employee who helped the Frank family hide.
The betrayer shouldn’t have been hard to determine – the Nazis kept meticulous records – but the details surrounding the home in Amsterdam are believed to have been destroyed in a 1946 bombing, making an easy identification impossible.
Investigations in 1947 and 1963 turned up nothing, and the identity of the Frank family’s betrayer appeared lost to history.
But there are still reams of documents, including some that have been shipped to the US and transferred to microfilm. That information could be key to finding out how the Nazis learned about the Franks.
Anne Frank’s Amsterdam was a maze of danger for the eight hiding Jews. The annexe where they lived could be seen easily from several nearby homes. A curtain accidentally left open or a loud noise at the wrong time could lead to discovery. They relied on counterfeit food-ration coupons to stay alive, operations that involved sympathetic collaborators and were heavily scrutinised by police. Dutch officers were paid for every Jew they turned over to the Nazis, Pankoke said. They leaned heavily and sometimes violently on people suspected of helping Jews avoid the Nazis.
The hiders’ collaborators had family members who could have tipped off police. Anne Frank chronicled moments when the people in the annexe made mistakes that could have been seen by neighbours. Pankoke believes all the investigative avenues have not been explored. He estimates it would take a human being a decade to go through all the documents and parse out possible connections. A computer designed by the big-data company Xomnia could process the same information in seconds. “There is, of course, all possible types of administration done by the Germans of the time,” Thijs Baynes, the film-maker behind the project, says. “And there is an even bigger circle of circumstantial evidence. What Dutch Nazi party members were in the neighbourhood? What connections were there with the Gestapo? Where were Gestapo agents living?
Pankoke is working to acquire more of those documents. He’s spent the past few months squinting at microfilm in Amsterdam and at a National Archives facility outside Washington, trying to find relevant data. He’s also become an expert on previous investigations that sought Anne Frank’s betrayer.
Pankoke started working for the FBI in the 1980s, spending his first four years as an agent in a small field office in Wisconsin. In 1992, he was transferred to Miami, where he helped build cases against Colombian cartels. After the 9/11 attacks, he was involved in FBI undercover operations, including cases that took him out of the country.
He retired two years ago. But that did not last long. “Unfortunately, my wife is looking at me and saying: ‘I thought we were going to be retired and taking cruises’,” he said, noting his probe could last into 2019.
Pankoke has always had a keen interest in World War II. His father and three uncles all served. While in the FBI, he remembers driving by the Anne Frank House and marvelling that no one had figured out who betrayed her family. He said a small part of him realises there may be no smoking gun. The key piece of data could have been destroyed. Or there may be heft to a recent report that says there was no betrayer at all, and that Anne Frank’s discovery was an unfortunate coincidence. That theory was posited in a research paper put out by the Anne Frank House.
Published late last year, the paper suggested three men Otto Frank later identified as investigators weren’t looking for enemies of Nazis, but were probably assigned to track down people committing ration card fraud or those dodging military service.
The museum’s research is backed up by other historical documents, along with words written in Anne Frank’s own hand: She talked about the arrest of men who had been caught dealing in illegal ration cards “so we have no coupons”. Such arrests were often reported to the authorities, who regularly came across hiding Jews as they tried to sniff out people with phony ration cards.
In a statement this week, the Anne Frank House said it was keeping an open mind about Pankoke’s research and has co-operated with his team.
“The background to and the exact details of the arrest of Anne Frank are issues that many people still find very compelling. We want to tell the life story of Anne Frank as completely as possible, so it is also important to take a close look at the raid that brought an end to the period in hiding.”
It added: “Despite decades of research, betrayal as a point of departure has delivered nothing conclusive. We are pleased that ‘Cold Case Diary’ is also carrying out research into the arrest and following new leads, and we are interested to see the results.”
Pankoke told The Post his investigators have already made some discoveries. – Washington Post