Big Data and High-tech to Help Solve Mystery of Who Turned Anne Frank in to the Nazis

Retired agent Vince Pankoke has convened his own high-tech team to investigate her family’s betrayal in 1944

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Anne Frank
Anne FrankCredit: AP/Yad Vashem Photo Archive
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

An ambitious new project launched a few days ago in the Netherlands will attempt to solve the major mystery over who, if anyone, betrayed Anne Frank and her family to the Nazis in 1944 by revealing the Jewish family's hiding place in Amsterdam to the Nazis.

A retired FBI agent, Vince Pankoke, is heading the new investigation of the very cold case. He has put together a team of 20 experts, including criminologists and historians, detectives and psychologists, as well as forensic scientists, data analysts, software experts, archivists and police officers. The team says it will conduct a wide-scale investigation over the next two years to uncover the truth. They have set August 4, 2019 as their target date for their report, the 75th anniversary of the arrest of the Frank family by the Germans in their secret hiding place.

The group’s website, Cold Case Diary, states: “What led to the arrest remains unclear to this day. Betrayal seemed to be the only logical conclusion, but by whom and why?” The team will film and document its work online as the case progresses.

Up to now, the newly convened team notes, most of the investigation work on the case had been done by writers, journalists and historians, but never by a team of forensic investigators using cold case techniques and supported by artificial intelligence technology. The multi-disciplinary group plans to use specially developed software to organize and analyze the vast amounts of data already collected about the Franks’ story. Members of the team say their analysis has already led to new insights in the case and that their approach will allow them to find connections that are not apparent at first glance.

The new insights may not only be applicable to the Anne Frank case. In the future, the information may be used to solve others cases of arrest and betrayal during the Nazi occupation, the team, which is working with a Dutch big data technology company, Xomnia, says. The amount of data involved is enormous and the investigations will involve over a million documents, said Pankoke, the former FBI agent.

In an interview with Britain's The Guardian this week, Pankoke said the group has already developed new insights into the case by studying recently declassified wartime documents that were stored in the United States. The material includes lists of Jews who were arrested after being turned in by informants and Gestapo agents in Amsterdam. Pankoke is convinced he and his colleagues can find new connections in the documents, many of which are in poor condition.

The investigation is being conducted in cooperation with the Anne Frank House, the museum in Amsterdam housed in the building where Anne and her family hid and where she wrote her diary. The staff of the Anne Frank House will allow the team access to their own archives as well.

This is not the first time investigators have tried to solve the mystery over who betrayed the Frank family. Just last December, the Anne Frank House published research claiming it was not at all certain the family had been turned in by an informer. It was quite possible, it was suggested, that they were discovered by accident during a search of the building as part of an investigation into illegal labor or counterfeit ration coupons at the house where Anne Frank and other Jews hid for just over two years. The research focused not on whether an informer may have alerted authorities to the family’s presence in the building, but rather why the police raid was carried out, without the expectation by researchers that it would necessarily lead to the conclusion that there was an informer.

But some criticized this research, saying it was politically motivated by a desire to blur the war crimes committed by Dutch collaborators with the Nazis during World War II and attempting to paint a false picture that it was not Dutch collaborators who betrayed the Franks to the Gestapo. Nevertheless, the research resulted in the conclusion that such a betrayal could not be completely ruled out. Beginning in 1948, the names of a number of possible informers in connection with the raid surfaced, but no clear evidence has been found against any of the individuals.

Pankoke has been critical of the Dutch police, saying the two investigations they conducted into the matter, in 1948 and 1963, “weren’t really investigations. I am working through the files and there are so many questions unanswered,” he told The Guardian. An investigation by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation in 2003 did not come to any conclusions either.

The Frank family – Otto, his wife, Edith and their daughters, Anne and Margot – had immigrated to the Netherlands from Germany after the Nazis came to power. But the Netherlands itself was invaded by Nazi Germany in 1940, and in 1942, the Franks went into hiding, along with four other Jews, in the canal-side building that housed the offices of a company Otto Frank had run. Employees of the company helped them hide.

On August 4, 1944, the police raided the building, and the Jews hiding there were arrested. Anne and her sister both died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen and Edith Frank died at Auschwitz. Otto Frank, however, survived Auschwitz. As a result of her wartime diary, which was found by her father after the war, Anne Frank came to symbolize for many the plight of the Jews during World War II.

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