Identity Cards and Forgeries

Jacob Lentz | Alice Cohn - Installation Robert Glas

Starting on 30 October 2017, the National Holocaust Museum (currently in the process of development) will present the stories of two people who were closely involved with wartime identity cards. These identity cards were introduced in the Netherlands at the start of the Second World War. This led to the death of many people. Jacob Lentz was the inventor of the identity cards, and Alice Cohn was a Jewish woman who forged them. The exhibition Identity Cards and Forgeries: Jacob Lentz | Alice Cohn explores how each of them was connected to these documents. An impressive installation by the visual artist Robert Glas shows how ingenious Lentz's creation was.

The identity card: a bureaucratic instrument

In the years before the war, you could freely choose whether to apply for a passport or other identity papers and carry them with you. After the German invasion in 1940, this situation changed dramatically. From 1941 onwards, all Dutch nationals aged 15 and older, both Jews and non-Jews, were required to carry identity cards. The cards for Jews had a black capital letter 'J' on both sides, which made them easy to recognize.

The man behind these documents was Jacob Lentz (1894-1963), a Dutch official at the Ministry of the Interior. He introduced the Dutch term for the cards, persoonsbewijs ('PB'), and became obsessed with developing a technically advanced identity card. The cards designed by Lentz included passport photos and fingerprints, so they were more difficult to forge or falsify than cards in any other occupied European country. Lentz also set up a central registry of identity cards, so that it was easy to check whether a card was genuine. His work made the PB a powerful and lethal bureaucratic instrument in the Nazi efforts to round up Jews, resistance fighters and people in hiding.

The visual artist Robert Glas (b. 1986) is engaged in a continual investigation of the technologies used by states to regulate and control the movement and identity of persons. For his work in the National Holocaust Museum, he went back to the moment when identity papers first became mandatory in the Netherlands. Using all the surviving portrait photographs of Jacob Lentz in newspapers, libraries, and archives, Glass reflects on how Lentz made the portrait photo an important tool of power. At the same time, he probes the historical interpretation of Jacob Lentz's method: does the Netherlands view Lentz's role differently now that the country has developed a mandatory, hermetically sealed, national identification system?

The collaborator versus the master forger

The exhibition weaves together Lentz's story with that of Alice Cohn (1914-2000), a German Jewish graphic artist who had fled to the Netherlands in 1936. In her work for the Dutch resistance, she proved that Lentz's supposedly perfect identity card could be forged. Working in secret, she used blank documents, exchanged photographs, and altered details, saving the lives of hundreds of people. Alice Cohn's story, and her work for the resistance, are as good as unknown in the Netherlands because she emigrated after the war. Her story shows the need to rethink the prevailing, but incorrect, image that Dutch Jews had a passive role during the war.

The National Holocaust Museum will exhibit much of Cohn's personal archive, which she kept throughout her life, and which is now in the possession of her daughter. It includes dozens of test cards, forged documents, falsely stamped papers, her tools, and blank identity cards. One noteworthy item is a notebook containing exercises for forging a signature. Alongside the objects from Cohen's archive, the museum will display identity cards from its own collection, which illustrate how many different ways they could be forged and falsified.


This exhibition is on view at the National Holocaust Museum.


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