Paper Humans

us__en_us__ibm100__punched_card__80_column__620x281Lentz and Carmille

I have been struggling to write about Jacob Lentz and René Carmille for over 15 years.

I first read about them in Edwin Black’s book ‘IBM and the Holocaust’, a chilling history of how the Nazis used data processing technology during World War II. When the Nazis took control of Germany in 1932 they used IBM technology to implement the Nuremberg Race Laws. Returns from the census were punched onto cards and run through a series of sorting and matching processes (including alphabetical matching, the rocket science of its day). Any person identifying themselves as Jewish on a census form could be matched to any of their descendants (using name, place and date of birth), and the number of Jewish-identifying ancestors a person had could be tallied: the Nazi definition of ‘Jewishness’ was anybody with a minimum of 3 Jewish-identifying grandparents.

During WWII the SS applied this processing in every territory the Germans conquered, particularly in Holland and France. In Holland, the head of the Population Registry Jacob Lentz was tasked with applying the Nuremberg processing to the Dutch population. In France the job went to René Carmille, head of the French Demographic Service and former Comptroller General of the French Army.

Lentz eagerly did as he was told, not because he was particularly anti-semitic, but more from an obsession with the accurate processing of data, no matter the human cost: a geek before his time. His goal was a ‘Paper Human’, a regime where the interaction of every citizen could be tracked using punch-cards and tabulators. Thanks to his willing implementation of the Nuremberg processing and the widespread implementation of IBM technology in Holland, 75% of the entire pre-war Dutch Jewish population died in the camps. Lentz served a 3 years prison sentence after the war and died in 1963.

Carmille took a different path. France had more serious demographic problems than Holland, much lower levels of tabulator usage and a far less settled Jewish population. Through various subterfuges Carmille delayed his processing for as long as possible. Seeing the human issues from the beginning, he cheated the Germans of their prize. Not only did he sabotage the punch-card process, so that answers to the vital question ‘Are you a member of the Jewish race?’ were not punched onto the cards at all, he covertly used his Tabulators to perform a secret mobilisation of an entire Army in Algeria, ready to support the Allied invasion of 1943. Thanks to him, ‘only’ 25% of the entire pre-war French Jewish population died on the camps. Carmille was finally arrested following an anonymous tip, interrogated by Klaus Barbie (the Butcher of Lyon) and died in Auschwitz in 1945.

What drew me to the story? At the time I read ‘IBM and the Holocaust’ I was working in Direct Marketing, developing/maintaining software that used methods strikingly similar to those used by Lentz and Carmille on behalf of the SS. That made it personal, made me think ‘What would I have done in the same circumstances’. How could I tell their story?

Cards for Clara (2011)

35‘Cards For Clara’ was written for Theatre West’s ‘Picture This’ project in 2011. A group of writers were each given photographs found in a German street market and tasked with writing a 10 minute piece inspired by it.

My photo showed a shipyard, so I wrote about an IBM salesman visiting a German shipyard owner in early 20th Century to sell him the benefits of using punch-card technology to track components and construction. The owner is interested, but is distracted by his daughter, who never speaks but communicates only through the business cards she has acquired from her father. Through the cards she offers, it becomes clear (to the audience) that she is seeing the future, sensing the dangers the punch-cards pose.

The play received a rehearsed reading at the Alma Tavern, Bristol on 29th May 2011.

Paper Human (2014)

For the final hand in for my MA in Scriptwriting I wrote a radio play based on the story.

This time, I focused on Lentz preparing to stand trial after the war, struggling to accept the consequences of his actions while he learns for the first time the truth about Carmille. Meanwhile, Dutch officials and IBM representatives connive to prevent too much embarrassing truth from emerging.

Paper Human (2019)

With hindsight, the issues with the story of Lentz and Carmille have been –

It’s about two people who never meet

It’s too much about technology and not about people

The events play out over months and years, something not always easy to put over on stage or satisfying to experience

I didn’t want to end up with something like one of those TV mini-series set over a number of years where the actors appear to age (grey in their hair, different hair cuts) every 20 minutes.

Over the Winter of 2018/2019 some ideas fell into place. I had always assumed that Lentz and Carmille would be the protagonists of the story, but I remembered reading that one of Lentz’ subordinates had approached him, concerned at what the SS would do with the data they had amassed, and suggesting they sabotage or even destroy it.

I decided to invert the story and invent a new, younger protagonist: one of Lentz’  former employees who has decided to destroy the cards to prevent the SS using them to target Dutch Jews. Lentz becomes the antagonist and the whole story becomes focused on a single moment, an hour in time when Lentz must defend his data (his life’s work), justify what he has done and persuade the would-be saboteur to stop what they are doing. And if Lentz had a would-be saboteur employee, I could give Carmille one too.

And rather than alternating between scenes set in Holland and France, both stories now play out on the same stage, virtually at the same time, the occupants of each story (set in their different countries) almost completely unconscious of the the other, the lines of dialogue following each other like punch-cards speeding through a tabulator, with a few instances, specific phrases, where the characters speak lines simultaneously. Until the end, when Carmille’s dialog diverges from Lentz revealing the differences in what both men actually did.

Like Philip Pullman’s ‘The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ’ – whose story begins so close to the original Gospels but by the end tells a completely different tale – Lentz and Carmille’s stories are virtually identical, but finally diverge.

The final version of the story was around 30 minutes long and has since been submitted to the Windsor Fringe Kenneth Branagh Award, Script Space and the British Theatre Challenge.