Who betrayed Anne Frank? Artificial intelligence could finally solve the mystery

  • A symbolic gravestone depicts the names of Margot and Anne Frank at the site of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Northern Germany. A former FBI investigator is now working to solve what he calls “one of the biggest cold cases” of the 20th century in determining who betrayed the Frank family in the summer of 1994. AP file

Washington Post
Wednesday, October 04, 2017

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 a team of 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 specialized software that can cross-reference millions of documents – police reports, lists of Nazi spies, investigative files for Frank family sympathizers – 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, which asked Pankoke to lead the investigation, has also asked people with information or previously undisclosed documents to submit them on its website.

Already, the investigation has generated new interest – and new information, Pankoke said.

“The bottom line is until this day, there is nothing that’s really held water or been definitive,” he told the Washington Post. “The point of the investigation is fact-finding just to discover the truth. There is no statute of limitations on the truth.”

Anne Frank’s family spent more than two years in the secret annex 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 the rest of 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 were believed 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 United States and transferred to microfilm. That avalanche of 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 annex 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 scrutinized 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 annex made mistakes that could have been seen by neighbors.

Pankoke believes all the investigative avenues haven’t 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.