Mark McIntyre looks at suffering through a new study of Anne Frank and her family
One author has suggested that to place the suffering of Carmelite martyrs such as St Edith Stein and St Titus Brandsma in context, the Christian needs to read recently published The Betrayal of Anne Frank by Rosemary Sullivan (2022). It considers the impact of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands on the lives of both Jews and non-Jews. This important historical and ethical reflection reminds us ‘by the end of World War II, the Netherlands would have the worst record of Jewish deaths in Western Europe: 73 per cent of Jews in the Netherlands died’. Sullivan goes on to say that of the estimated 25,000 Jews that went into hiding in the Netherlands, around a third were betrayed to the Nazis.
This latest investigation, by the Cold Case Team of 2016-21, looks into who betrayed the Frank family and those hiding with them at Prinsengracht 263 in central Amsterdam. A telephone call is reported to have been taken on the 4th August 1944, by SS officer Josef Silberbauer, that Jews were known to be hiding there and so the ‘Jew Hunting unit’ was despatched to raid the house. A further twist is that Otto Frank may have discovered who turned them in and kept it secret, hence the subtitle ‘less a mystery unsolved than a secret well kept’.
From the Christian perspective, our emphasis is on the analysis of motives for the betrayal of so many Jewish families in hiding in the Netherlands. Anne herself wrote in her diary, rather naively: ‘It is a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impossible. Yet I keep clinging to them, because I still believe, in spite of everything that people are truly good at heart.’
In contrast Elie Wiesel the Holocaust survivor and author of Night wrote: ‘Hunger -thirst – fear – transport – selection – fire – chimney: these words all have intrinsic meaning, but in those times they meant something else.’ And in another context, the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn commented that once the tolerance level for evil is surpassed in the world then all morality cracks and human beings become capable of anything.
In such dire and terrifying circumstances, it would appear that human beings are capable of anything and the definition of words and life as we understand them suddenly change. The Nazi occupation gives testimony to these dramatic changes. Dutch neighbours become suspicious of one another to the point of betrayal. Co-workers, employers and employees could inform on one another. A straightforward grocery deliveries became complex and clandestine operations to feed those in hiding.
The Team looked at various possibilities for who may have given away the hiding place, but of most interest were the wider motives that betrayal presented, including those working with and for Otto Frank in the ‘Opekta’ company, and those who suspected there were Jews hiding in Prinsengracht 263 (including residential neighbours and people employed in surrounding companies overlooking the Annex and factory courtyard). There were also enlisted informers on those in hiding, often referred to as ‘V-men and women’ – often paid a fee, or Kopgeld, based on how many Jews were captured as a result. Some were even placed in prisons and transit centres like Westerbork camp, from which 102,000 Jews were deported by train to concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Some became informers to be acquitted of petty crimes, others were of Jewish background and often gained the trust of other Jewish families and the Resistance in order to discover other hiding houses and then hand over their lists to the Nazis.
Why would people do this? Is it simply as Solzhenitsyn said that in such circumstances human beings are capable of anything? Was Anne Frank so completely wrong in her diary to believe that, despite all that she experiences, people are truly good at heart? Of the person seen as responsible for the raid, Sullivan says: ‘a person put into a devil’s dilemma by circumstances for which he was not to blame, and, under pressure, he may have failed to understand fully the consequences of his actions. He did not turn over information out of wickedness or self-enrichment, as so many had. Like Otto Frank’s, his goal was simple: to save his family.’
Sullivan explores how people respond to evil around them. Some hide away to in attempt to save themselves and loved ones, others give in out of fear in order to survive. Some are forced to comply and cooperate with evil, others do so willingly and for profit. Some again simply long for it to be over and come through with their lives and families together. The Holocaust reminds us of many things, but especially that for so many Jewish people and others, they were not given that option of being able to come through.
Sullivan’s hopeful concluding chapter is called ‘The Shadow City’. In Amsterdam today there are at least 80 monuments to the Second World War including the Anne Frank House, the Jewish theatre from where at least 6700 Jews were deported, the children’s nursery and school from which at least 600 Jewish children were saved and placed in hiding. A statue of a dock worker commemorates the strike in the city when the first arrests of Jewish men were taking place. ‘Lotty’s bench’ memorialises the horrendous treatment of those returning as survivors of the concentration camps, often with nothing and forced to sleep outdoors on park benches. Though some of the memorials and commemorations speak of holocaust horror, others speak of great heroism, perhaps giving us some hope that even among the evils of our modern day, Anne Frank was right: people are truly good at heart.
Holocaust Memorial Day is on 27 January