Sunday, 13 July 2008

In the shame of the father.



Who betrayed Anne Frank and her family? Ori Golan meets someone who knows.

On a warm summer’s day on August 4, 1944, four Gestapo policemen raided a canal warehouse at 263 Prinsengracht, Amsterdam. Minutes later, the eight Jewish people hiding in the back house, were arrested: Otto Frank, his wife and two children; the van Pels family of three; and Fritz Pfeffer, a dentist. They were taken to Westerbork Kamp and from there herded into cattle wagons bound for Auschwitz. Of the eight inhabitants of the annex, only Otto returned.

During the raid, a policeman emptied Otto’s briefcase to fill it with the fugitives’ valuables. In his haste, he dropped a batch of papers and a small diary belonging to Otto’s daughter. This diary, the diary of Anne Frank, was to become the most widely read document to emerge from the Holocaust; a poignant testimony of innocence, suffering and hope.

In March this year, a Dutch biography of Otto Frank was published in the Netherlands, generating renewed interest in the diary and reviving the unanswered question: who betrayed the Frank family to the Gestapo? In a television interview, the day before the book was released, its author, Carol Ann Lee, pinned Tonny Ahlers as the person who betrayed the Frank family. Less than 48 hours after the publication of the book, Lee received an astonishing telephone call from her editor. "Someone rang just now. He has information about the betrayal the Frank family. He left his number". Lee dialled the number. The man at the other end introduced himself as Anton Ahlers. Tonny Ahlers’s son.

"I could never have told people voluntarily that my father betrayed Otto Frank, but now that it has been made public, I feel it’s my duty to tell what I know and to prevent any lies and half-truths going into the papers" he explained to her.

Anton agreed to meet me, accompanied by Lee, at a hotel on the outskirts of Amsterdam. He had never given an interview to a journalist and was initially rather wary. By the end of the evening, after almost three hours, he seemed decidedly more relaxed.
Ahler was a violent, unstable anti-Semite. He was involved in numerous brawls in Jewish-owned cafés soon after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands. During the war he threatened anyone who annoyed him with a spell in the cells of the Gestapo Headquarters. After the war, in the summer of 1945, Ahlers was tried for his wartime activities and sent to jail.
Anton is not a chip off the old block, neither in character nor in looks. He is an honest, hard working individual; a reserved man who is not looking for fame or notoriety. His wife is a Dutchwoman whose five uncles were executed by the Nazis for their underground resistance activity. "I have never been to the Anne Frank’s house" he admits, "I feel ashamed. I am ashamed that my father created this situation".

Anton does not remember when he became aware of his father’s chequered past. "It was a process, not an incident." he recalls. "My family was ostracised by the rest of the family and at school my brother and I never played with the other children. We were not allowed to invite anyone home. My parents would never sign any letters from school, out of fear that someone might recognise the family name."

"One day, one of the kids at school taunted me, calling me the son of a Nazi. Then, when I was sixteen, I had a young girlfriend. I was very keen on her, but when her father found out my identity, he said ‘not with a Nazi’ and forbade her to see me again." He reaches out for his cigarette packet. His face disappears behind a puff of smoke.

"My mother was 19 when she met my father. A couple of months later she fell pregnant with my elder brother. Her family threw her out and so, out of lack of choice, she married my father. They had very little money. She worked as a dressmaker and rented out two rooms in our house to make ends meet. My father was away for long periods. He never brought in money to support us."

Anton’s mother still lives in Amsterdam. When Lee approached her in connection with her research on Otto Frank, she found a hostile woman. "It was a strong-willed woman who answered the door" recalls Lee. "I asked her about her ex-husband’s relationship with Otto. At first she told me that they were friends and had business relations. But when I confronted her with letters that Ahlers had written about Otto Frank where it was clear that he hated him, she became aggressive and threatened to call the police. She screamed: ‘If you come any closer to this door I will attack you. The war was bad for everyone not just the Jews. Otto Frank was my best friend. My husband did nothing wrong during the war. You have no idea what it was like for ordinary Dutch people. Everyone talks about the Jews, but it was bad for us too. Anyway, I had Jewish girls working for me during the war, all the time. My husband did not betray anyone. Don’t you dare write anything bad about him. If you do, I have family who will come and get you.’ With that she slammed the door".

Anton is not surprised. "My mother lives in lies. She claims she had Jewish maids working for her during the war but I can categorically say that it’s untrue. Lies, lies, lies," he sighs. "She once accused me of stealing her cotton bobbins to pay for my motorbike," he smiles ironically, then pulls on his cigarette. "My father was a violent man. I remember plates smashing and fists flying." He pauses and looks pensively. "My mother saw what was going on but never defended us. She never interfered."

Anton has no doubt that that the man who was his father, is the same person who denounced the Frank family to the Nazis. "I am certain he did it," he reiterates. His evidence is largely circumstantial and difficult to corroborate. But through painstaking research, poring over letters, listening to testimonies and uncovering wartime documents, Lee has managed to give substance to many of Anton’s claims.

In her biography, The hidden Life of Otto Frank, recently published in English, Lee describes Ahlers as an unpleasant and dishonest man. His son concurs:

"He was always snitching on people, picking arguments and causing trouble." There is a long silence, before he picks up again. "I remember one time, when I was working in a radio store, finding an empty salary envelope at the end of the month. There was a note inside telling me that my father had purchased goods from the store without paying, so the bill was deducted from my salary. I later found in the living room cupboard taper recorders which my father had bought with my salary."

When Anton was sixteen, his father fixed a lock in the living room door. He would lock himself inside and hack on his typewriter for hours on end. Ahlers wrote vitriolic letters to all and sundry. He once wrote to a supermarket store to complain that their peanut butter was disgusting, and demanding payment to keep quiet about it. "Nothing was beyond him," confirms Anton.

In 1985, the relationship between Ahlers and his wife reached a new nadir. In one incident, she later claimed that Ahlers had tried to run her over with his car. Following a particularly violent incident Ahlers’s wife left him. The following year she filed for a divorce.

At about the same time Anton’s business took a serious blow and he was forced to declare bankruptcy. In the course of the legal proceedings, his lawyer asked him whether he had dealings in the West Indies. "I was rather surprised at this question" recalls Anton, "since I had never been to the West Indies and had no business connections there." His lawyer produced a letter which had been sent anonymously to the receivers. The writer claimed that Anton and his wife were involved in drug trafficking in the West Indies. "This letter caused us a lot of problems," he says nodding his head.

"Shortly after this incident, we accompanied my mother to parents’ home, to collect some personal belongings as well as paperwork for the divorce proceeding. Lying on my father’s desk we found a carbon copy of the ‘anonymous letter’ sent to the receivers. So you see: nothing was beyond him."
"When my daughter was in primary school they learnt about Anne Frank and read from her diary. One day", recollects Anton, "my daughter mentioned that her grandfather had told her that he was involved in the Frank family going into hiding. Then she added that he told her that he was also there when they got out."

Assuming that this verbal exchange took place, it is not clear exactly what Ahlers meant, since he was not present at the time the Franks’ hiding place was raided. Nonetheless, there is written evidence which indicates that Ahlers knew that Otto had gone into hiding and was fully aware of his hiding place.

In a testimony given to Lee by Ahlers’s 82-year-old brother, Cas, he asserts that Ahlers told him that he himself had betrayed the Franks during the war. This evidence cannot stand in its own right since it is based on hearsay and, according to Lee, Cas was inaccurate in his account of other events. The crux of incriminating evidence against Ahlers is found by piecing together his wartime activities and contact with Otto Frank.

In the course of her investigation into Otto’s life story, Lee found an astonishing testimony written by Otto, after the war, to the Bureau Nationale Veilingheid - the Bureau for National Security:

In 1941, Tonny Ahlers, already a known Nazi activist, a bully and agent provocateur, visited Otto in his office. Ahlers showed him a letter which he had intercepted on its way to the SS. The writer of the letter accuses Otto of making ‘anti-German’ remarks – an accusation which, at the time, could have cost Otto his life. Otto paid Ahlers in return for the letter, and for keeping silent about it. Otto believed that Ahlers had saved his life, a fact that may account for the fact that Otto testified in Ahler’s favour after the war. But in letters written by Ahlers during the war, he refers to Otto Frank as ‘the Jew Frank’ and it is clear that he hated all Jews.

In 1944 Ahlers fell out with a Nazi spy called Herman Rouwendaal, over an issue concerning rent. Rouwendaal threatened to kill Ahlers and, according to testimonies given after the war, Ahlers feared for his life and turned to the Nazi authorities, seeking protection. Ahlers and Otto were in the same line of business. According to Anton, his father sold Otto special paper that could contain pectin – a conserve product, which had a number of uses, both in food and in the steel industry. This business interaction must have begun before the Franks went into hiding, but it is not clear how long it lasted. What is clear, is that after his own company slid into insolvency Ahlers no longer needed Otto’s for business purposes. Lee asserts that it was probably then – at the point where Otto was no longer useful to him and when he needed to endear himself to the Nazis – that Ahlers decided to alert the authorities to Otto’s hiding place.

"He may also have received money for it," she speculates. "The Germans were paying a bounty of 40 guilders per head which was a large amount in those days and Ahlers certainly needed the money." The evidence piles on:

Speaking to a Ducth journalist, Cas recalled seeing a brass menorah (Jewish candelabra) in Ahlers’s possession which Ahlers told him had come from the secret annex where the Franks were hiding. Otto mentioned a brass menorah as one of the items which the Gestapo confiscated at the time of their arrest during an interview to a French television channel.

"From the existing evidence available on Ahlers," Lee concludes, "I managed to form a profile of the man and it has left me in little doubt: he was behind the betrayal of the Frank family."

"Things are coming back to me now; things are resurfacing" says Anton. "If you put all the pieces together, it all adds up." After a pensive pause, he offers another astonishing twist to this tale. "I believe that my father blackmailed Otto Frank after the war."

"My father was receiving money every month. He bragged about it" says Anton. "He would buy lots of presents and go on expensive holidays. He told us it was a government disability allowance, because he had polio as a child. But this could not be: the monthly payments were comparable with the salary of a board manager. Then, suddenly, in 1980 his financial situation changed and the spendthrift lifestyle ended." 1980 was the year that Otto Frank died.

It is unclear what Otto had to hide and why he would let himself be blackmailed. Lee concedes that so far the evidence for this theory is merely circumstantial, but offers a possible motive:

"Otto sold products to the Wehrmacht, the German army, in 1940, after the German invasion of the Netherlands. Miep Gies, one of Otto’s employees - who also helped him go into hiding - confirmed this in interview after the war. Ahlers knew about these dealings: in a 1996 letter, he writes that Otto was ‘selling Pectin to the Wehrmacht. When he returned from Auschwitz in 1945, having lost his wife and two daughters, Otto may have feared his company would be confiscated if his pre-war business with Germany became known, although eighty percent of Dutch firms did business with the Germans during the war, mostly out of fear. You must also take into account" she stresses, "that when he returned to the Netherlands after the war, Otto was considered ‘enemy national’ and his situation was very precarious."
In 1955, in an unrelated matter, in a letter to his lawyer, Otto wrote: ‘no good comes from giving way to blackamail’. Eva Schloss, whose mother married Otto Frank in 1953, dismisses the ‘blackmail hypothesis’ out of hand. "Otto was extremely careful with money. I don’t believe for a second that he would allow anyone to blackmail him. My mother and Otto did everything together and there is no way my mother would not know about such a thing."

Historian and researcher David Barnouw, from the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, also does not support the blackmail supposition. "There’s no smoking gun, and the theory has too many loose ends," he said in a recent radio interview.

Ahlers died in 2000, aged 82 and there are now no living witnesses who might be able to unlock the mystery. Dutch banks do not keep records of accounts going back more than three years, so it is impossible, at present, to check Ahlers’s monthly income, but his son is currently making investigations of his own and following new leads.

The Netherlands Institute for War Documentation recently stated that, as a result of the findings published in Lee’s book, The Hidden Life of Otto Frank, they are officially re-opening the investigation into the betrayal, and probing the possibility that Otto was blackmailed after the war. They will review old files and testimony for new revelations. They hope to reach some sort of conclusion by the end of the year.

After more than 50 years of silence, Anton Ahlers is keen to shed light on his father’s past and expose the truth. "I have kept silent all these years", he reflects, "There were some occasions in my life I said that my father was a Dutch Nazi, but I would never say more. It’s now time to tell the truth. Enough of lies. No more lies."
It is clear that, Anton, too, is a victim of his father’s crimes.

Anton asks to guard his privacy and does not seek any further publicity.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

One key clue to the motives of the informant is that they did it as an anonymous tip on the phone to the Gestapo. Wanting to keep their identity secret suggests it was not money that motivated them, as they would have nothing to gain financially if they were anonymous. Anonymous tips do not sound like it was a bounty Jew hunter, which were so common then. It could be they did it out of what they believed was duty, or fear. But they didn't want their identity known, which suggests they feared reprisals if word got around.

Mama Nettie said...

The Gestapo police admitted they were tipped off.Time magazine did a recent article claiming the Frank's and those that were hiding with them were found by accident, bit this cannot be true.
I do believe these people were victims of an informant.