Day 713: A Rat In Their Midst

originally published December 13, 2013

Sometime around 10:00 or 10:30 on the morning of Friday, August 4, 1944, a German officer named Karl Silberbauer showed up at the doorstep of Prinsengracht 263 in Amsterdam, accompanied by a handful of plain-clothes Dutch policemen. The visit was anything but social. A few minutes later they were marching back out the front door with eight prisoners in tow, all of them Jews who had been hiding from the Gestapo. Among them was future unwitting best-selling author, Anne Frank.

As one of the few victims of the Holocaust to wind up with a household name, the story of Anne Frank has been the subject of countless movies, books and school curricula. It helped that Anne was an astounding writer for her young years, and that she captured a horrifying experience from such an unexpected vantage point: when her youthful innocence could pose such a stark contrast to the inky shadow that was spreading across Europe at the time.

But while we all know the reason for the abrupt end to The Diary of Anne Frank, that she and her family were scooted off to concentration camps and that Anne was destined to perish there, we are still missing a key piece of the narrative. How did the police know the Franks and their companions were there? Who sold them out? There is a definitive answer to this query, but unfortunately we may never know it for certain.

Otto Frank moved his offices of Opekta and Pectacon, spice and gelling manufacturers, into Prinsengracht 263 along the Prinsengracht canal in Amsterdam on December 1, 1940. Otto was aware that the outlook for Jews in Nazi Germany wasn’t good, and Amsterdam seemed like a wise relocation. Then the Nazis swooped into the Netherlands, and once again Otto was faced with the option of fleeing. But there was a reason he’d chosen that particular address. Upstairs, at the back of the house, he’d prepared a space for his family to hide.

The ‘Achterhuis’ (literally ‘back house’ in Dutch) was a rear extension of the building, blocked on all four sides by other houses and the perfect place to build a secret room. There were a handful of workers who kept the business going and supplied black market food and necessities to the four Franks, and the family was soon joined by three members of the Van Pels family and German refugee Fritz Pfeffer., Otto trusted everyone involved in the operation implicitly.

Still, someone tipped off the occupying forces that there were Jews being stashed up there. Someone was a rat.

Wilhelm van Maaren was the warehouseman at the office, and one of the first people suspected in the betrayal. He wasn’t in on the secret, but he knew something was up, and his colleagues who were in the know had concerns over Wilhelm’s persistent questions about the sealed-off rooms of the building. Miep Gies, one of the ladies in the office who had been actively helping the fugitives, became particularly itchy when Wilhelm would brag about his contacts in the Gestapo.

Sure, the guy was caught stealing little things from the office, and he considered having buddies in the German secret police to be a boast-worthy coup. But how far did Wilhelm go? He seemed genuinely surprised when the police led the captured party out the door that day, but then the arresting officer dropped the building’s keys into Wilhelm’s hands. He was brought to trial twice regarding the betrayal, once in 1949 and again in 1963-64, and both times he was cleared. Arresting officer Karl Silberbauer couldn’t identify him, and there was no verifiable evidence that he had slipped the metaphorical knife between Otto Frank’s shoulder blades.

Lena van Bladeren-Hartog (I couldn’t find a photo of her online so I went super-generic) was the wife of Wilhelm’s assistant, a guy named Lammert Hartog. She was a cleaner in Otto’s offices in 1944. She told her friend Anna Genot that she knew there were Jews being hidden in that building, and Anna relayed this to Johannes Kleiman, one of the men in the office who was protecting the group. A lot of milk and bread were getting delivered to the place and mysteriously disappearing. Lena just put the facts together.

But knowing there were Jews hiding up there and spilling that knowledge to the bad guys are two very different things. Austrian journalist Melissa Müller claimed in her 1998 biography of Anne Frank that Lena was the betrayer, but an extensive 2003 investigation by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation waved off the claim.

Tonny Ahlers is the one smarmy bastard who actually wanted credit for selling out the Franks and their companions. He was a petty criminal and a Dutch Nazi, deeply anti-Semitic and from the little I’ve read about him, a sentient piece of walking excrement. He met Otto Frank in 1941 and then tried to blackmail him after the war. Carol Ann Lee, a British author who studied the Anne Frank affair diligently, pointed her finger squarely at Ahlers in her 2000 biography.

Tonny’s brother and son both claimed to have heard Tonny confess that he had betrayed the family, though how he found out they were hiding up there still remains a mystery. As there was no hard evidence to support the echoes of Tonny’s claim, the 2003 investigation had to give him a pass. They weren’t after the most likely candidate – they wanted proof.

Circumstantial evidence and decades-old suspicion will never pinpoint a definitive candidate for the betrayal, and so we’re left with a mystery. Arresting officer Karl Silberbauer didn’t know anyone in Otto’s office prior to that August morning. His superior, who had sent him on that particular mission, had committed suicide after the German defeat and never revealed his secret source. The truth went to the grave along with that guy.

Of the eight prisoners, only Otto Frank, Anne’s father, came back alive. Miep Gies, who had been devastated when the prisoners were taken away and was spared punishment only because the officer interrogating her was from her hometown of Vienna, slipped back into the closed-up building and grabbed Anne’s diary before the Nazis swept in to claim everything. Miep passed away only three years ago, having lived to the age of 100.

The building itself was slated for demolition in 1955, but a group of protestors showed up on the day the wrecking ball was set to fly, and their commitment to the preservation of the place saved it. A museum that highlights all forms of persecution and discrimination now sits in the house, and its secrets are open to gawking tourists.

History needs to be preserved, even if the entirety of its truth remains lost in an unanswerable mystery.

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