Blog Archives

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.

IMG_7949

Exhibition space

IMG_7951

The ID cards for Jews, marked with the prominent J

IMG_7953

Alice Cohn

IMG_7956

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.

thumb_IMG_7963_1024

Where the Amsterdam Jews were held before deportation

thumb_IMG_7972_1024

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.

Advertisements

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! 

Udai’s Tenth: The best birthday ever!

We chose The Netherlands as our summer destination primarily to visit family. It had been a while since I saw my uncle, aunt and cousins who live there. Plus Rahul and the kids had never been to what Rahul teasingly refers to as uncle-land! As soon as we landed, we were enveloped in the warmth of family, but the highlight and the most amazing demonstration of family love was the way Udai’s tenth birthday was celebrated; in his own words, “the best birthday ever!” The large share of the credit, of course, goes to Liduine who the kids call Oma, Dutch for Grandma. But everyone chipped in. Follow the fantastic day in this photo essay of the “best birthday ever”!

Udai woke up to a decorated home. Oma had taken care to do this the previous night. I think we tend to forget he is a kid….he was so excited!

A little joy jig!

Oma is the best!

Post breakfast, we took a trip down to the market nearby to choose our own gifts as well as cake! Udai took ages to finally choose two Lego Technic boxes and a delicious apple cake

Doesn’t this pic say it all?

Next in line was a visit to the cousins, the ‘little people’! Olivier (5) and Berend (3) are delightful kids and Aadyaa had been asking to meet them for years. Her dream came true…

The kids spent an hour or two jumping and playing sand in the backyard plus general shouting, running and laughing around. Much pandemonium! And cake cutting too...Thomas (my cousin) and Coleta (his wife) have a beautiful house on a canal. Typically Dutch, with lots of place for the kids to play

The kids spent an hour or two jumping and playing sand in the backyard plus general shouting, running and laughing around. Much pandemonium! And cake cutting too…Thomas (my cousin) and Coleta (his wife) have a beautiful house on a canal. Typically Dutch, with lots of place for the kids to play

_DSC6582_DSC6588_DSC6589

Udai and Rahul are full of cake by this time!

Next destination: Zandvoort! It’s not very far from Haarlem, this beautiful Dutch beach. It’s a fixture on most of our visits to the Dutch family, but the 11th of June was a beautiful, windy but warm day to be at the beachside…

_DSC6596

The van you see in the background is driven by a tractor and sells delicious seafood preparations. We ate calamari (a favourite with the kids since the 2011 Barcelone trip!), a mixed seafood platter and the quintessential summer Dutch delicacy- new herring which is eaten raw or smoked and served with chopped onion!

Shells galore…

…and running away from the numerous jellyfish in the waters (here, some kids have made an artwork of the helpless jellyfish!) were the beach highlights!

Some horsing around too!

Oma had been chilling out at a beach restaurant nearby, sipping a cool drink, while we were at the beach. We joined her for a drink and then realised…

..that the rest of the family was driving down to Zandvoort as well! We were going to have a beachside birthday party!

A party in which you got gifts (check out his new watch!), ate some delicious food and…

…ran back to sea for a quick dip in the cold waters

Raising a toast for Udai here before heading back. It’s late and the deceptive European summer light invites us to linger, but the children are tired and we must go now…

Oma has another trick up her sleeve, however! A quick pit stop for Italian ice cream on our way home. She clicked this picture and sent it to us. It sort of says it all, doesn’t it?

%d bloggers like this: