How does one stop evil? Philosophers have spent much energy trying to solve that question throughout the centuries, and they are still at it. Civilizations are fixated on the conundrum. Recently, an independent team of forensic experts looking into an old “who done it?” case inadvertently answered the question.
They wanted to solve a different mystery: who betrayed Anne Frank’s family to the Nazi regime? They eventually found the suspect, but they also found another person who, I believe, came up with at least one answer to the first question. Anne Frank’s father decided to stop the spread of evil by keeping secret the name of the man who revealed the Franks’ hiding place. The poignant irony in this story is that the betrayed did not want to betray his family’s betrayer. At first glance, we might feel his thinking was misplaced: what about justice? What about closure? But understanding his perspective might help us to learn how we, too, might stop evil.
In 1942, the Jews in Amsterdam were in grave danger of being deported to extermination camps. To save his family, Otto Frank devised a plan. He built a secret annex in his office building to hide his family. His employees would assist in ensuring the four Frank family members, along with four others, had sufficient supplies to survive. For more than two years the group stayed cloistered in cramped conditions, living in constant fear of being discovered. Their worst fears were realized when the Nazis stormed the annex on August 4, 1944 and shuffled them to various camps. Of the eight, only Otto Frank survived Europe’s dark nightmare.
Most of us have read The Diary of Anne Frank. For many schools it remains required reading. When I first encountered the book, I lived vicariously with the Franks, the van Pels and Dr. Pfeffer. It was deeply moving – and it remains just as powerful and applicable today.
Collectively we are still burdened by the colossal tragedy of events in twentieth century Europe. We try to make sense of it still – with the hope that it is never repeated. We ask ourselves how a minority group could be so vilified that political harassment could escalate to job losses, ghettoization, and finally massacres. How could ordinary, normal people take part in the butchery of families like the Franks? It’s unthinkable, and yet it happened. That’s what is so scary – normal people committing such sickening atrocities.
That also helps to explain the continued fascination with young Anne’s story, which motivated independent researchers to spend years scanning kilometres worth of papers in national archives and special collections. Their aim was to determine once and for all who it was that betrayed the Franks and their company in the summer of 1944. Led by former FBI agent Vince Pankoke, a group of Dutch detectives, researchers and volunteers were on the hunt to identify someone with motive, knowledge, and opportunity.
After five years of research the group has now determined that Arnold van den Bergh was the likely suspect.
Van de Bergh was a co-founder of the Jewish Council set up in response to the Nazi order to manage the Jewish community. As a civil-law notary, van de Bergh was well connected in Amsterdam, including ties with the Nazi hierarchy. He was also respected by the Jewish people. The Council had a list of the Jewish hideouts. That list became his currency to ensure that he and his family would avoid being shipped away on railcars. In other words, the researchers discovered probable evidence that he passed on names and places of his own people in hiding to the Nazis in exchange for his family’s protection. It worked. His family survived. As Pankoke concluded, van de Bergh had the necessary motive, knowledge, and opportunity.
After the war Otto Frank received an anonymous, typed letter that said, “At the time, your hiding place in Amsterdam was reported to the Jüdische Auswanderung in Amsterdam, Euterpestraat, by A. van den Bergh.” The idea that such a prominent Jewish leader would have passed his address on to the authorities must have shocked Frank to the core. Nevertheless, he kept this story to himself for many years. In 1963, he did mention to a police investigation that he had the note, but that he did not know van den Bergh, who died in 1950. It was ignored by the police, partly because he downplayed the information.
The researchers suggested that Frank’s reticence to pursue the matter was due, in part, to his fear that disclosing the information would cause a rise in anti-Semitism. Given that he received a number of hate messages after publishing Anne’s diary, one could understand the hesitancy. Another possibility is that Frank did not want van den Bergh’s family to suffer shame from the treachery of their father and grandfather.
The researchers concluded that Otto Frank recognized that van den Bergh was not an evil man, but a man caught up in horrendous circumstances. As Pankoke stressed, “It is the Nazis who were responsible for the death of the people in hiding, not the notary who gave their address.”
What would we have done in such a terrible situation? Most of us would like to imagine ourselves on the “right side” of history: a protector, not a betrayer. But we hardly know what we would do in a time of extreme crisis or persecution, when compliance means doing evil and resistance means suffering evil.
By not wanting to demonize the person who betrayed his family, Otto Frank left us an important example. Repaying evil with more evil does not stop the spread. Justice must be served, but not at the expense of who we are. Frank knew that revenge would not bring back his family. Evil had run its course. It must not continue.
From one who lost so much, may we learn to be true to the duty to do good.
Canadian author Rosemary Sullivan has recently published her book on the story: The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation.