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Hi-tech Dutch ID cards helped Nazis identify, exterminate Jews: What does that teach us about the ethics of technology & the choices we are making today?

I can, in part, blame my fascination for The Holocaust on reading too much of Leon Uris in my teen years. This fascination intensified on the trip to Berlin in 2014 and continues to be a theme of my explorations in Europe since. So this past weekend, on a loose limb on a Saturday morning, I decided to explore the Jewish Quarter in Amsterdam.  The motivation was a listing for an exhibition titled Identity Cards and Forgeries: Jacob Lentz and Alice Cohn on the IAmsterdam page. On a recent trip to China, a PhD researcher had presented at a workshop we co-organized her preliminary research on documents and identity that mentioned the use of ID card forgeries to help migrants access services. That discussion played in my head, as much as the recent heated debate in India on privacy and misuse of information collected under the UIDAI project, popularly called the Aadhaar, which the Indian government is aggressively developing in the form of a universal identification system for the country. The Supreme Court of India is currently in the midst of hearing petitions that contend that the Aadhaar identification programme violates an individual’s fundamental right to privacy. A curious me arrived at the National Holocaust Museum and the exhibition did not disappoint!

Set in an oppositional format, the left half of the exhibition space showcased the work of Jacob Lentz who, as the head of the Dutch National Inspectorate of Population Registers, had been at the forefront of designing a highly secure and for the time hi-tech system of ID cards from 1936 onward. While Lentz and some of his colleagues seemed to have designed the system expecting every Dutch citizen carry an ID card, interestingly in March 1940, the Dutch government decided not to implement this system. Their reason? That it was contrary to Dutch tradition.

But of course the highly sophisticated, and virtually non-forgeable, ID card system was ready for the Nazi occupiers to use when the Netherlands fell to German forces post the bombing of Rotterdam in May 1940. The ID card system was brutally used by the Nazis to identify Jews (with a large J on the card itself), in order to initially curtail their civic rights and eventually deport them to concentration camps where they were largely exterminated in gas chambers. Lentz, as one of many bureaucrats who inadvertently aided the Nazi  genocide, is cited as an example of Hannah Arendt’s famous Banality of Evil hypothesis, which  highlights the absolute ordinariness of the human beings who perpetrate acts of evil merely by being complicit. Read in another way, one may say that the compliance of ordinary people under conditions of terror are sufficient to aid evil. Something we in India could keep in mind if we were ever to be on the scene of a horrendous rape, lynching or honour killing, all of which are alas becoming all too common!! I won’t go into the larger implications of the ‘banality of evil’ in the Indian context as manifested by, for example, widespread self-censorship in public life and social media in the face of a vindictive regime served by an army of online trolls. I have written on those issues before.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

~Edmund Burke

On the opposite side of the exhibit, was displayed the work of Alice Cohn, a German-Jewish graphic artist and member of the Dutch resistance who obsessively and often successfully forged these ID cards to help innocents escape. The work of the Resistance is marked by the very opposite of what I have discussed above, the involvement of ordinary people, often from the non-persecuted majority, in a commendable demonstration of altruism usually at considerable risk to themselves (on that note, check out this fantastic NatGeo piece on the psychology of altruism). Those stories reinforce our faith in humankind and at the end of the exhibition, I was left with a positive feeling despite the overwhelmingly “heavy” sense one has in a building that is dedicated to the memory of those persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust.

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Exhibition space

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The ID cards for Jews, marked with the prominent J

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Alice Cohn

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Some of Alice Cohn’s graphics work

Alice Cohn’s story has a specific resonance with the history of the building that houses the Museum. One of her bravest acts was the use of a forged identity for herself to be able to walk into a creche, located next door to the Museum, and rescue the child of a Jewish couple who were her friends. The creche is where the children were kept before deportation, while the parents were crowded into the Hollandse Schouwberg, a theatre building on the other side of the street. The story is that Director of the non-Jewish School that was run in the Museum building, and the woman who ran the creche collaborated to smuggle out over 600 Jewish children to safety, out of the clutches of the Nazis and into foster homes where they grew up safe and sound. I held on to these stories of altruism even as I wept at the small but evocative collection of material artefacts from families who died in the Holocaust.

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Where the Amsterdam Jews were held before deportation

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A bit further down the road, the Portuguese Synagogue. The Jewish population in Amsterdam immigrated from Spain and Portugal (the Shephardic Jews.) during the Reformation.

The Dutch Jews were concentrated in Amsterdam, and so this community was hit hardest by the Holocaust.  About 107,000 Dutch Jews were killed in the concentration camps, some 5,200 survived while the Dutch Underground was successful in hiding 25-30,000 Jews and hence saving their lives. Among them were these 600-odd children who were aided by the school. Franz, the volunteer who narrated us the story, told us that though a few of the parents of these children did return from the concentration camps, they were “neither right in the body, nor in the head” and the reunions were almost as difficult as the separation. The impacts of extreme hatred and mass ethnic cleansing are often discussed in terms of death and annihilation. Sadly, in our world today, these words have become normalized. It would do us all well to remember that between living and dying are myriad states of pain and half-baked existence, the personal and social consequences of which are almost as unbearable.

The pall of the Holocaust hangs over Europe decades after. As the extreme conservatives rise over the continent and indeed the world, people worry and fret but alas, also forget. And evil has the chance to be banal again.

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59, Rivoli: A glimpse of the alternative in Paris

Moving towards the ideal of compact, transit-oriented, efficient and sustainable cities is not at all about new designs and technologies. If at all, it entails much thinking about retrofitting and re-using existing spaces and structures in interesting and useful ways. In recent times, we’ve been seeing instances of more tolerant attitudes towards squatters-people who occupy vacant spaces usually through organized grassroots mechanisms-in European cities.

In Amsterdam, the city has reached out to former squatters and professionals to set up systems to negotiate leases with owners so unused spaces can be turned into low-rent or even rent-free spaces for artists or as business incubators (read here). I’ve always been fascinated by instances in which formal and legal institutions engage with the informal (and often illegal) to create something in between. Something quasi that is granted, if only temporarily, a legit status in order to serve a need or create an interesting situation, add flavour to our cities. The constant pull and push between formality and informality, I believe, creates a delicious tension. A frisson almost, that creates a sense of surprise and delight.

On my too-short trip to Paris early November, the highlight was the few hours spent at a legalised artists squat at 59, Rivoli. On the recommendation of my friend Valerie’s daughter, we made it a point to put this on our list of sights on my one day of sight-seeing in Paris. The place was a sheer delight. A number of artists were in residence, all different styles (you can apply to go if you are an artist). The atmosphere of freedom and departure from rules was liberating, even as the spaces were well organized and managed. Chaotic and grungy, but far from the filthy grimy places that squats are imagined to be, neither Valerie nor me wanted to leave. You can spend hours watch the artists at work or you can walk through, you can chat with them and ask questions and of course, you can buy their art too!

59 Rivoli has been in existence since 1999 and Paris is now expanding the concept to take over more empty buildings to create such artist spaces. It’s very heartening indeed, for what is urbanity (or indeed life) without a chance to enjoy the alternative?

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Ooh-ing and Ah-ing at the renovated Rijksmuseum

I’ve visited Amsterdam’s major landmarks iteratively and the Rijksmuseum has been a family favourite, home as it is to some of the most stunning works of famous Dutch artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer. This time though, my trip was dedicated to discovering the results of the major rehaul the museum has been through, planned since 2000 and finally executed between 2004 and 2012! 

This is a landmark building through which a zillion cyclists ride each day, that shows it’s severe face to the city and it’s fun side to the open grounds called the Museumplein. The beautifully detailed magnificent masterpiece was designed by Peter Cuypers over 125 years ago and has been a museum since. It was heartening to see that the renovation had aimed to restore it to its original Cuypers design and detail even as the atrium that links its two parts has got a modern twist and a slew of technological advancements to better preserve its precious artworks put in place. 

Through my visit, my eyes were riveted by the elegant proportions, exquisite brick detail and stained glass lobby. Most fascinating was the library where Cuypers work has been best showcased. Hats off to Spanish architects Antonio Cruz and Antonio Ortiz for their marvellously sensitive and meticulous work. 

Of course, on a crowded Saturday, any attempt to see a museums artworks at leisure is a futile one. Still, I swung by the particularly well renovated Gallery of Honour and saw the crowd that was milling around Rembrandt’s famous ‘The Night Watchman’, then detoured to see my beloved Vermeers with a little more peace. Finally, I wandered through a few more galleries paying particular attention to the section on the East Indies, seeing Dutch colonialism in a new light post my Indonesia wanderings. 

Stepping out into a drizzle and watching tourists enjoy themselves straddled across the giant ‘I am Amsterdam’ installation at Museumplein, I felt fortunate for this afternoon of alone time in the Rijksmuseum, the moments of contemplation and admiration, and most of all an appreciation for a culture that genuinely treasures its material history and celebrates it with no holds barred! 

Finding Nemo in Amsterdam!

When you are in Holland, you always run the risk of rain! It’s the place that people always complain about the weather and the No. 1 nemesis for outdoors fun is the rain. And so, we thought it imperative to have other tricks up our sleeve the day we decided to wander around the streets of Amsterdam.

Plan B had to be put into action the minute we stepped out of the Central Station. Through the drizzle, we walked to the building I’ve always been curious about, but never been to- the strange maritime structure designed by Renzo Piano that houses the Science Center Nemo.

_DSC6090_DSC6093_DSC6096The children probably didn’t know what to expect, but they were delighted the second they stepped into a hall full of light, friendly volunteers helping them out with all sorts of simple science experiments and the promise of endless discoveries beyond.

Started way back in 1923, the museum took its present avatar, moving into the new building, in 1997 and has since become the 5th most visited museum in The Netherlands (the country has a plethora of museums and many world-renowned ones!). The interior is gigantic, with several levels that can engage children starting with toddlers going all the way up to teenagers. Udai and Aadyaa, who have become avid museum goers, tried most things out despite the crowd. It seemed like everyone had the same idea as us to shelter from the rain, plus it was a weekend. We were in there for hours, but I was the only one who got slightly bored out there. For Rahul and the kids, pressing buttons and making stuff, reading things and playing little games, taking on challenges and giggling, all of it was endlessly fascinating. It was a tough place for a photographer, the light being very strange, but I tried and here are some clicks that hopefully show how amazing the experience was.

Creating giant bubbles from soap film was a lot of fun!

Creating giant bubbles from soap film was a lot of fun!

Exploring the stability of built structures

Exploring the stability of built structures

Excited after using binary code to write Mum's name!

Excited after using binary code to write Mum’s name!

Many types of interactions. Papa was at his absolute best, explaining stuff and helping the kids out in every section of the museum

Many types of interactions. Papa was at his absolute best, explaining stuff and helping the kids out in every section of the museum

And Rahul's love for flight is clearly seen here as he helps Aadyaa maneouvre mirrors to reflect light onto PV panels that help fly a plane!

And Rahul’s love for flight is clearly seen here as he helps Aadyaa maneuver mirrors to reflect light onto PV panels that help fly a plane!

We left the museum only to realise the sun was out! As we walked away, I looked back to click one last picture of Renzo Piano’s creation. Here you can see the crowning glory of the structure, the large terraced roof that offers stunning views of Amsterdam and is, in itself, quite a sight!

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