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Investigators Are Turning to Big Data to Find Who Betrayed Anne Frank

Many experts believe that someone alerted Nazi authorities to the hiding place of Frank and her family, but the culprit has never been determined

Anne Frank in 1940 (Public Domain)
smithsonian.com

On a warm August morning in 1944, SS officers stormed into an Amsterdam warehouse and arrested Anne Frank, her parents, her sister and four other Jews who had been hiding in a secret annex at the back of the building. Many experts believe that someone alerted Nazi authorities to the hiding place, but the identity of the culprit has never been conclusively determined. Now, according to Daniel Boffey of the Guardian, a retired FBI agent has launched an investigation into the enduring historical mystery, hoping to find out once and for all who betrayed the young diarist.

Vince Pankoke, who tracked Colombian drug traffickers in recent years at the FBI, will lead a multidisciplinary team of experts, among them historians, psychological profilers and police detectives. But the most innovative aspect of the investigation is its use of big data analysis—a technology that has only emerged within the past decade—to comb through reams of documents relevant to the case.

In theory, as Cleve R. Wootson Jr. notes in the Washington Post, the betrayer of the Frank family shouldn’t be hard to find; Nazis kept detailed records of all arrests and informants. It is believed, however, that documents pertaining to Anne Frank and other residents of the annex were destroyed in a 1940s bombing. Pankoke and his team are compiling a huge database of other documents that may contain information relevant to the Frank case: lists of Nazi informants, lists of Jews who were turned over to the authorities, names of Gestapo agents who lived in Amsterdam, police records and so on.

The trove of information is so large that “a human in their lifetime might not be able to review” it, Pankoke tells Stephanie van den Berg and Anthony Deutsch of Reuters. So the team has enlisted the Amsterdam-based data company Xomnia to develop algorithms that will analyze the documents, and perhaps reveal connections that have never been noticed before. 

Titled “Anne Frank: A Cold Case Diary,” the investigative project was initiated by filmmaker Thijs Bayens and supported through crowd funding. Wootson Jr. of the Post reports that the team’s work will be chronicled in a podcast and, possibly, a documentary.

For more than seven decades, investigators, researchers and journalists have been trying to shed light on the mysterious circumstances surrounding the arrest of Anne Frank, who famously captured the rise of Nazism in her poignant, posthumously published diary. Fifteen-year-old Anne, her sister Margot and her mother Edith died in Nazi concentration camps. Her father, Otto Frank, survived, and spent the rest of his life trying to discover who had betrayed his family. He strongly suspected a warehouse employee named Willem van Maaren, who had sparked concerns among the Franks and the people who helped them hide.

“He places books and bits of paper on the very edges of things in the warehouse so that if anyone walks by they fall off,” Anne wrote in her diary in April of 1944. She added that the people who were helping to hide the Frank family had “been looking into the question of how to get this fellow out of the place from every possible angle. Downstairs they think it is too risky. But isn't it even riskier to leave things as they are?”

Dutch police launched two separate investigations focusing on van Maaren, but did not uncover any conclusive evidence. Over the years, some 30 different suspects have been suggested as the possible culprit, from the wife of a warehouse employee, to the sister of Otto Frank’s typist, to Anton Ahlers, a business associate of Otto Frank who was active in the Dutch Nazi party.

Last year, the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam floated a new theory: Nazi officers who were investigating illegal work and ration fraud at the warehouse accidentally stumbled upon the Jews hiding in the annex. Still, Ronald Leopold, executive director of the museum, notes that the new investigation did not “refute the possibility that the people in hiding were betrayed,” but instead illustrated “that other scenarios should also be considered.” 

The Anne Frank House has opened its archives to Pankoke and his team, and, according to Boffey of the Guardian, welcomes the new research initiative.

It is still early days for the investigation, but Pankoke told Wootson Jr. of the Post that the team has already produced some interesting information. Experts have discovered, for instance, the identity of a person who betrayed at least one other family to the Nazis. Anne Frank “is a symbol of the youth and what the people who were in hiding went through,” Pankoke said. “But all of the other people who were in hiding, and their collaborators, they’re just as important; they’re just not as famous.”

Still, experts remain focused on the fate of the teenage diarist whose life was cut tragically short. The team hopes to reveal the results of its investigation on August 4, 2019—the 75th anniversary of Anne Frank’s arrest.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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