As an expert forger of identity papers, Alice Cohn worked with a Utrecht-based resistance group while in hiding. Their production of so-called “wild papers,” including ID and ration cards, saved up to 350 Jewish children from the Nazis. During the war’s final year, Cohn’s handiwork helped prevent young Dutch men from being sent to Germany as forced laborers.
Cohn’s story and the saga of Dutch identity cards during World War II are currently on display at the National Holocaust Museum in Amsterdam. The temporary exhibit opened in October, and is based on items from the personal archive of Cohn, who died in 2000.
According to the museum, one motivation for highlighting Cohn’s efforts was to help correct the “prevailing, but incorrect, image that Dutch Jews had a passive role during the war.” During the Holocaust, 102,000 Dutch Jews — the majority of the community — were murdered at Nazi-built death camps and elsewhere in the Reich.
Born in Breslau in 1914, Cohn studied cabinet-making until the Nazis came to power in 1933. When Jewish students were banned from taking exams or submitting final projects, she moved to Berlin for a year of school in graphic arts. The situation for German Jews continued to deteriorate, so Cohn fled to the Netherlands in search of a secure future.
Settling in Amsterdam on a student visa, Cohn learned Dutch and received commissions to design cinema posters. On the eve of the war, she was creating children’s toys. Unbeknownst to the new Dutch citizen, the Nazis were about to catch up with her.
Of all the countries occupied by Germany during World War II, the Netherlands had the most robust pre-war population registry. The system’s success was attributed to Jacob Lentz, a Dutch official who created the so-called “fool-proof” personal identity card. During the Nazi occupation, Lentz refined his system to help authorities issue new cards throughout the country.
In addition to a high-tech design and use of the bearer’s fingerprints, Dutch identity cards were backed up in a central registry. This made it possible to confirm whether or not a suspicious-looking ID had been forged. At the exhibit on Alice Cohn’s life, she is contrasted with the population-counting expert Lentz. While Cohn used her artistic skills to help save lives, Lentz — conjuring “the banality of evil” — deployed his organizational skills to implement the Nazis’ agenda.
Beginning in 1941, all Dutch men and women were ordered to carry ID cards with them. For Jews, a large black “J,” for Jew, was stamped on both sides of the card. By the summer of 1942, authorities began using the registry to arrest and deport Jews from the Netherlands. Suddenly, the demand for altered or completely falsified identification exploded, including the need to crack Lentz’s “hermetic” system.
Before she went into hiding, Cohn found a position with Amsterdam’s Jewish Council as a doctor’s assistant. With the job providing her a nominal degree of freedom, she was able to smuggle a Jewish child — 3-year-old Lonnie Lesser — out of a building where Jews were incarcerated prior to deportation. After seeing the child safely into hiding, Cohn made her own way to a “safe” address in Utrecht, south of Amsterdam.
'The Utrecht Children's Committee'
During two years of hiding in an attic near Utrecht’s Wilhelmina Park, Cohn accomplished what had been deemed impossible: She forged identity cards able to withstand scrutiny.
The tools she used — test cards, knives, a notebook to practice signatures in — are on display at the National Holocaust Museum, along with head-shots and other artifacts used by the Dutch population registry.
According to the museum, Cohn and her group of co-resisters, called “The Utrecht Children’s Committee,” managed to save 350 children from deportation and murder. The group also forged ration coupons needed by “underground” people in hiding to obtain food. During the last year of the war, many new “wild papers” were needed to help young Dutch men evade forced labor in Germany.
After liberation, Cohn learned that all of her relatives from Breslau had been murdered, including her parents. Like other Jews among the Netherlands’ surviving remnant, she had to build a new life from scratch.
As fate had it, Cohn began obtaining fabrics from a Lichtenstein-based merchant named Rudolf Bermann. The materials he provided helped her create, for instance, puppets with grimacing faces and vibrant costumes, some of which are on display in the exhibit. What began as an exchange of fabrics blossomed into love, and, in 1947, Cohn left the Netherlands to join Bermann as his wife in Lichtenstein.
Two months ago, some 17 years after Cohn died at age 85 in Lichtenstein, she was posthumously awarded the “Jewish Rescuers’ Citation” for Jews who helped save fellow Jews during the Shoah. Cohn’s daughter and son, Evelyne Bermann and Michael Bermann, were presented with the honor during the Amsterdam opening of the exhibit on their mother’s life. So far, 171 women and men from eight countries have been honored by Jewish organization B’nai B’rith in this capacity.
“There are many people who were able to escape deportation through fake identity cards,” said exhibit curator Annemiek Gringold. “The people who had the skills and the courage to carry out this vital work remain largely unknown until today.”