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Review of The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation

Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl is, perhaps, one of the most well-known, well-read Holocaust-


-era memoirs. The Frank family’s story is famous: Otto, Edith, Margot, and Anne Frank hid with their friends Hermann, Auguste, and Peter van Pels and local dentist Fritz Pfeffer in a secret attic above Otto’s business. For over two years they never left the attic, until, that is, the attic was raided and the hiders arrested and eventually sent to a detention center in the Netherlands and off to Auschwitz and other death camps. Of the eight in hiding, Otto was the only one who survived. Who betrayed these eight innocent Jews and sent them to almost-certain death has long been a mystery that authors and documentarians are eager to solve.


The team behind The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation (written by Rosemary Sullivan and published by Harper Collins in 2022) attempt to do just that. Their approach, though, is different than many of the other would-be investigators in that they were made up of dozens of researchers, former law enforcement officers, historians, forensic experts, and a small army of volunteers dedicated to leaving no archive unsearched or possible lead un-investigated. Their budget was seemingly endless, and their investigation took over five years and spanned multiple continents.


To be clear, what they did was fascinating, and no doubt presented a huge challenge for Sullivan to chronicle in book form. Not only does she have multiple theories to explain for readers, but the processes by which the investigators, well, investigated their theories meant a massive amount of information for her to distill. It is a long book with lots of different characters in motion, but, for the most part, Sullivan does her job well. The book gives readers a peek into wartime in the Netherlands (Amsterdam in particular comes alive) and a behind-the-scenes look at the logistics necessary to take on a historical investigation of this scale. I especially appreciated that the Frank family (especially Otto) is always at the center of the story.


I have a lot of questions, though, on the larger purpose of the project. While the team does come up with a very compelling hypothesis (and are clear that it is just that: a hypothesis with significant, if sometimes circumstantial, evidence backing it up), the project, at times, had. A distinct scent of exploitation.


This book isn’t really about Anne Frank, but that didn’t stop the publishers from using her name in the title to capitalize on the millions of readers who would recognize her name. In fact, Sullivan documents the resistance with which the project was met by the Anne Frank Fonds (AFF), a high-profile non-profit that houses an Anne Frank research center and archive. Located in Switzerland, the AFF was founded by Otto himself. In an early meeting with the non-profit, Sullivan recalls how the AFF bristled when they learned the working title for the project and book was: “A Cold Case Diary: Anne Frank.”


“The room immediately went quiet. Kugelmann [the secretary of the AFF] started to speak. He said that they really objected to that. Why misuse the name of Anne Frank for the study? Did they not know t


hat the name Anne Frank was protected and the AFF owned the trademark rights? The Cold Case Team would not be allowed to use her name. And wasn’t it particularly unethical to make money on the back of the poor girl? After all, the betrayal was not about Anne Frank


alone, it was about all eight people hiding in the Annex – and it was also about 107,000 other Jews who’d been taken from the Netherlands and were not names Anne Frank. Why did the Netherlands claim Anne, anyway? She was first of all a German girl and a Jewish girl and not a Dutch girl!”


It's not clear if Sullivan was in the room for this exchange, how much she’s paraphrasing, or to what extent this is – or is not – an unbiased record of the AFF’s actual language. The way Sullivan depicts it subtly emphasizes the AFF’s stance as slightly hypocritical, since they have the trademark on Anne’s name and possess the sole rights to Anne’s original diary, to which they limit access.


While, of course, she is well within her rights to point out these ironies, there is no bigger reflection on the other points made by the AFF about The Cold Case Team using Anne Frank’s name for money and notoriety. The AFF, I feel compelled to point out, is a non-profit that carries on Otto Frank’s legacy and vision, and when they withhold access to Anne Frank’s name or diary, they do so to protect these things from people looking to make a buck or two off of Anne’s name. Sullivan never addresses these criticisms lodged by the AFF against The Cold Case Project, but to me they are crucial and hard to dismiss.


These misgivings – both mine and the AFF’s – are compounded by a fact that Sullivan holds back until the very end of the book: that Otto Frank (and some of the non-Jews who helped them hide, like Miep Gies) knew who gave them up and – importantly – didn’t want to name that person publicly. Sullivan takes care to explain why this was, but it raises a lot of ethical questions for me. Mainly: what is the purpose of this massive project – which must have cost millions and millions of dollars and took up countless hours of research – when the one living person whom it impacted the most, Otto, already knew and didn’t want to pursue publicly? I know there are legitimate answers to this question, but I can’t stop thinking about other worthy causes that this investigative team and their deep pockets also could have taken up that could have done real good to living people (maybe exposing some of the anti-Jewish hatred in present-day Netherlands?) without exploiting the name of a dead teen.


Sullivan reveals in the final chapter: “Otto told a Dutch journalist in the late 1940s that they’d been betrayed by Jews and he did not wish to punish the family and children of the man who betrayed them, indicating, among other things, that they betrayer was a man who had children.” Sullivan explains how the team used this comment to ultimately rule out all theories except for one, but – I’m screaming in my head – if this information was known all along, why was I taken through 400+ pages of disproven theories if the team had this information up front?


The book has some bright spots, but overall, I feel like I was just taken for a ride by a bunch of bored documentarians who are taking advantage of Anne Frank’s name. Given Sullivan’s inclusion of the AFF’s criticisms of the project, though, maybe she felt a bit of the same?


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1 Comment


kolokolo
Dec 01, 2023

very interesting and feels like this may represent a broader phenomenon of motive when telling or revisiting history

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