On the morning of 4 August 1944, a car drew up outside 263 Prinsengracht, a warehouse and office building in central Amsterdam. Several men exited the vehicle and made their way inside, among them an Austrian officer named Karl Josef Silberbauer and some members of the Dutch Nazi Party. They had been tipped off that Jews were hiding on the premises. Whoever had made the anonymous phone call that day was correct: in an annexe at the back of the building, Silberbauer and his men discovered eight Jews. The youngest among them was a 15-year-old girl named Anne Frank.
The warehouse staff had pointed Silberbauer in the direction of the first floor offices on his arrival to 263 Prinsengracht. Upon entering, a pistol was drawn and Viktor Kugler, the director of the company, was ordered to show the men where the Jews were hiding. Unwillingly, Kugler took them to a bookcase, which concealed the door to what people around the world now know as the Secret Annexe. This was where the Frank family, the van Pels family and a dentist named Fritz Pfeffer had been living clandestinely since 1942, supported by Kugler and other helpers. All of them were German Jews who had fled Nazi rule in the 1930s, only to find their lives endangered once more following the occupation of the Netherlands and the implementation of anti-Semitic laws.
Otto Frank (pictured) was giving 17-year-old Peter van Pels an English lesson when the Nazis entered the Annexe. They joined their families and Pfeffer on the lower floor, where they were ordered to give up their valuables. Looking for something in which to transport the loot, Silberbauer picked up Otto’s leather briefcase, the private place where his youngest daughter Anne had chosen to keep her diaries. Her writings were unceremoniously emptied on to the floor as what little cash the Franks had was stashed away by the Gestapo.
Initially, the Jews were told they had just a few minutes to pack a small bag, but Silberbauer then saw Otto’s trunk, evidently the property of a German war veteran. He was astonished that a Jew had served in the German army and subsequently told everyone to take their time. Similarly astounding was Otto’s revelation that they had been in hiding for over two years. As proof, Silberbauer was shown the pencil lines where Otto had charted Anne and Margot’s growth since 1942 and a map studded with colourful pins, charting the progress of the Allied invasion. D-Day, on 6 June 1944, had been jubilantly celebrated in the Annexe, as everyone had believed that the liberation could not be far away. Now, however, it was evident that for them, the Allied invasion had begun too late.
One by one, Otto, Edith, Margot and Anne Frank; Hermann, Auguste and Peter van Pels; and Fritz Pfeffer were marched downstairs to transport waiting on the street. None of them had stepped outside since going into hiding. They were taken to prison in Amsterdam, then to the transit camp at Westerbork, in the north of the country. On 3 September 1944, all eight were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, on the last train to leave the Netherlands for the infamous extermination camp.
Hermann van Pels was gassed in Auschwitz sometime in October, following an injury to his hand. Fritz Pfeffer’s date of death is given as 20 December 1944 in Neuengamme, a German concentration camp. The Frank sisters were transported to Bergen-Belsen in Germany at the end of October, where they perished from typhus in late February or early March 1945. Their mother Edith remained in Auschwitz, where she died on 6 January 1945. Auguste van Pels was briefly reunited with Anne and Margot in Belsen, but was then moved elsewhere again. There are no records confirming her exact date and place of death, but she never returned from the camps. Her son Peter went on a death march out of Auschwitz in January 1945 and died in Mauthausen, Austria, just a few days before the camp was liberated in May.
Otto Frank was the only one of the eight who had lived in the Secret Annexe to survive the Holocaust. He devoted the rest of his life to sharing the message of Anne’s diary, which had been saved by his colleague Miep Gies after the arrest and was published in 1947. Otto died in Switzerland in 1980, aged 91.
An investigation in to who betrayed the eight Jews hiding at 263 Prinsengracht took place in 1948. No conclusions were reached. As Anne’s diary became globally renowned, the betrayer’s identity became something of a public cause, with indignation abounding that nobody had been brought to justice for tipping off the Gestapo.
In her diary, Anne wrote how the Annexe residents were wary of one Willem van Maaren, who replaced the previous warehouse manager when he became ill. Van Maaren was intensely curious about the rooms at the back of the building and noticed that unusually large amounts of food were delivered to the premises. He purposefully left traps downstairs, supposedly to catch thieves, and asked the office staff uncomfortable questions. When questioned about the betrayal in 1948 and 1964, he admitted his suspicions but denied informing the Gestapo.
Silberbauer, the arresting officer, was tracked down in the early 1960s, but did not know who made the fateful phone call betraying the Franks, the van Pelses and Pfeffer. Otto, advocating tolerance over vengeance after his experiences in the war, chose not to pursue the enquiries and the case was closed. However, two recent theories have diverted attention from the often-accused van Maaren and prompted the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation to re-open the case in 2003.
In her 1998 biography of Anne, Melissa Müller pointed a finger at Lena van Bladeren-Hartog, a cleaner at 263 Prinsengracht whose husband worked in the warehouse. Lena gossiped with another woman that there were Jews hiding in the building and there are rumours that it was a woman who telephoned the Gestapo. Tonny Ahlers was, according to biographer Carol Ann Lee, a vicious anti-Semite who blackmailed Otto Frank both during and after the war. Records testify that Ahlers betrayed several Jews during the Occupation and was also arrested for other crimes. According to Ahlers’ brother and children, he admitted betraying the Franks, however no official records verify this and his death in 2000 halted any further enquiry.
The 2003 investigation concluded that, while the case against Ahlers was strong, all evidence was circumstantial. Along with Lena van Bladeren-Hartog and Willem van Maaren, his name was cleared.
An Unsolved Case
It is possible that the Franks, van Pelses and Pfeffer went some way towards betraying themselves through carelessness during their twenty-five months in the Annexe. After the war, people from the surrounding buildings reported that they had thought something unusual was going on at 263 Prinsengracht (pictured): the twitch of a curtain, an open window, coughing in the night and a toilet flushing were all signs of residence in a building that should have been empty. For so many people to have remained hidden for so long without detection would have been no mean feat and it is perhaps unsurprising that suspicions were aroused. What prompted someone to act on these suspicions, however, remains unknown.
Betrayals were reasonably common during the Occupation. Informants received financial compensation and fear of the Nazis may have been instrumental in many Dutch citizens’ decisions to turn in Jews and resistance workers. Whether money, fear, or anti-Semitism was the motive for whoever betrayed Anne and the seven other Jews at 263 Prinsengracht will probably never be known and the identity of the caller will likewise remain forever anonymous. All that is certain is somebody telephoned the Gestapo on 4 August 1944, knowing that, in all probability, innocent people would consequently be sent to their deaths.