The betrayal of Anne Frank, etc.
Reimagining Anne's story as a police procedural does no one any good.
What I’m writing
As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’m currently at work on a book about Anne Frank for Jewish Lives, a series of short biographies published by Yale University Press. Although it’s a biographical study, I’ve been reluctant to call this project a biography, perhaps because it’s so different from my book about Shirley Jackson—not least because Anne is such a well-researched subject. It was obvious from the beginning that I wouldn’t be discovering new diary pages or untapped sources; I’d have to find another path in. I’ll say more about my take on Anne’s story in future installments of this newsletter.
As trampled as this territory is, many things remain unknown about Anne Frank. We don’t know the date of her death, from typhus, in Bergen-Belsen: for a long time it was thought to have taken place towards the end of March 1945, adding the pathos of being just a few weeks before liberation, but researchers have concluded she actually died earlier. We don’t know the number of her Auschwitz tattoo—women from her transport were given numbers between A-25060 and A-25271. (The fact that no one bothered to record who got which number is sad testimony to the Nazis’ contempt for their prisoners.)
And we don’t know who—if anyone—tipped off the Gestapo to the presence of Jews hiding in the building now famous as the Secret Annex, resulting in the raid of August 4, 1944, when all the residents were arrested and deported. Numerous theories have been proposed, including by biographers Melissa Müller and Carol Ann Lee, but no one has yet come up with a smoking gun. So a few years ago, a Dutch journalist and a Dutch filmmaker teamed up with a retired FBI detective to reassess all the evidence with the help of artificial intelligence. As the world now knows—thanks to the huge publicity blowout that accompanied the release of The Betrayal of Anne Frank, Rosemary Sullivan’s book about the “cold case team” and its conclusions—they accused the Jewish notary Arnold van den Bergh (who is unable to defend himself, having died in 1950), the subject of an anonymous note received by Anne’s father after the war.
There are so many problems with this investigation that I didn’t have room for them all in a 4,000-plus-word review. The team’s conclusions rely on a central piece of “evidence” that no one has proved the existence of: lists of addresses for Jews in hiding supposedly maintained by members of Amsterdam’s Jewish Council, an organization that served as a liaison between the Jewish community and the Nazis. The team’s argumentation leaps from supposition (“the Van den Bergh theory was clearly the most likely”) to assertion (“Arnold van den Bergh was a person put into a devil’s dilemma”)—a dubious rhetorical strategy also used by Holocaust deniers and other conspiracy theorists. Finally, the very premise of the investigation contradicts the political reality of the Holocaust. “In imagining that a single person could have been responsible for Anne Frank’s death—and not the tidal wave of fascism that once threatened to engulf the world and may do so yet—are we not betraying her still?” I asked.
The book’s Dutch publisher withdrew it from publication following the release of a “refutation” of its conclusions by a team of Dutch historians. The website of the cold case team, which published lengthy rebuttals to criticisms made previously by journalists and others, has been silent since the release of this report.
Even before Sullivan’s book appeared, I felt deeply skeptical about the cold case team’s prospects for success. Working on my book about Shirley Jackson made me acutely sensitive to the dividing line between what’s knowable and what isn’t. If Jackson wrote in a letter that something happened on a certain day, could I believe her? What if she recorded it in a diary—a genre that, contrary to common perception, is just as constructed as any other? (This is doubly true of the text we think of as Anne’s “diary,” which she rewrote nearly in its entirety during her last few months in hiding.) If others contradicted Jackson’s own reports on her life, who should I believe? These dilemmas will be familiar to any responsible person working in biography, a genre that, even more than history, relies upon the complex interplay of fact and memory, document and speculation.
Seventy-seven years after her death, basic facts of Anne Frank’s life have become obscured—by time, by the fog of mythology that engulfs her, by people’s imperfect memories. These facts include the police raid on the Secret Annex, the details of which—crucial to the cold case team’s argument—are disputed by key witnesses in ways that can never be resolved. There’s something detective-like about the work of biography, which involves figuring out what people know and how they know it. But it also requires making space for competing narratives and understanding when the essential remains unknowable.
Where I’ll be
At my desk! My book deadline is rapidly approaching, so I’ve curtailed my public events for the moment. I’m planning to participate in Jami Attenberg’s 1000 Words of Summer—maybe I’ll see you there?
What I’m reading
I just finished Annelies by David Gillham, an affecting, disconcerting novel that imagines what Anne’s life might have been like if she had survived the camps. Have you read it? Curious to hear others’ reactions.
From the Shirley Jackson files
The Smithsonian/Folkways has made Jackson’s recordings of “The Lottery” and “The Daemon Lover” available for free on YouTube (h/t Mental Floss). Listen for the unusual emphasis she places on the last line of “The Lottery” (“And then they were upon her?”) and the clink of her whiskey glass at the start of “The Daemon Lover.”
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are considered, by some, to dream.”—Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House