Adolfo Kaminsky – Saving Lives By Forgery

On these first Fridays, I often share stories of courage and inspiration – righteous gentiles, and people of every religion and nationality.  I’ll weave them […]

On these first Fridays, I often share stories of courage and inspiration – righteous gentiles, and people of every religion and nationality.  I’ll weave them in with Jewish values of courage, not standing idly by, the centrality of life – and what these stories do ultimately is give hope that light can exist amidst darkness – and its sparks ripple and create activism.

So tonight I want to tell you the story of Adolfo Kaminisky.  By his 19th birthday in 1945, he had saved thousands of lives by making false documents to get people into hiding or out of the country in France. The estimates are that he saved 14,000 Jews through the forged documents that he made.  And this is not just a World War II story – he went on to forge papers for people in practically every major conflict of the mid-20th Century.

He just turned 91- he has a long white beard, wears tweed jackets and shuffles around his Paris neighborhood with a cane. He was born to Russian Jews who first fled Russia to Paris and then were kicked out of France – and ended up in Argentina where Adolfo was born.  In 1932, when he was 7, the family, by then with Argentine passports, rejoined relatives in France.  Alolfo recounts: “It was then that I realized the significance of the word ‘papers’.

Adolfo dropped out of school at 13 to help support his family and he apprenticed to a clothes dyer – a precursor to the modern dry cleaner.  He spent hours figuring out how to remove stains, then read chemistry textbooks and did experiments at home.  On weekends he helped a chemist at a local dairy, in exchange for butter.

His mother was killed by the Nazis in 1941.  Aged 17, he entered the Resistant – transmitting messages to London about railcars loaded with arms and their departures.  In the summer of 1943, he and his family were arrested and sent to Drancy, the internment camp for Jews near Paris that was the last stop before the death camps.  This time, their passports saved them.  Argentina’s government protested the family’s detention, so they stayed at Drancy for three month, while thousands of others were swiftly sent on to die.

Mr. Kaminsky remembered a math professor who had agreed to tutor him in the camp.  He recalls, “One day, when it was time for our classes, he wasn’t there. He hadn’t wanted to tell me beforehand that his name was on the list.” Eventually the Kaminskys were freed, but they weren’t safe in Paris, where Jews were under constant threat of arrest and their Argentine passport was no longer protection.  To survive they would have to go underground and Adolfo’s fathers got false papers from a Jewish resistance group and sent Adolfo to pick them up.  When the agent told Adolfo that they were struggling to erase a certain blue ink from the documents, he advised using lactic acid – a trick he’d learned at the dairy.  It worked and he was invited to join the group in the chemical forgery lab, and his lab became the main producer of false IDS for northern France.

His cell would get tips on who was about to be arrested, then warn the families, providing them with new papers for them on the spot.  The article I read about him, by Pamela Druckerman in the New York Times, began with this sentence: “It’s 1944 in occupied Paris.  Four friends spend their days in a narrow room atop a Left Bank apartment building. The neighbors think they’re painters – a cover story to explain the chemical smell.  In fact, the friends are members of a Jewish resistance cell. They’re operating a clandestine laboratory to make false passports for children and families about to be deported to concentration camps.”  Historians estimate that France’s Jewish resistance networks together saved 7,000 to 10,000 children. Some 11,400 children were deported and killed.  Here is how he explains what he did: “I saved lives because I can’t deal with unnecessary deaths – I just can’t.  All humans are equal, whatever their origins, their beliefs, their skin color.  There are no superiors, no inferiors.  That is not acceptable to me.”  In recounting his story he explained that they placed the kids in rural homes or convents, or smuggled them into Switzerland or Spain.  He and his group worked with very little sleep. In explaining one moment where there was an enormous rush order and he stayed awake for two nights, he says, “It’s a simple calculation: In one hour I can make 30 blank documents; if I sleep for an hour, 30 people will die.” Now think about the line from the Mishna: One who saves a single life saves an entire universe.  One who takes a single life destroys an entire universe. Now think about the number – 14,000 lives saved.

The work was intense – it put such a strain on his vision that he eventually went blind in one eye.  And though he was a skilled forger – creating passports from scratch and improvising a device that made them look older – he constantly worried that if it was not perfect, the person using the documents would be killed.  He said: “The smallest error and you send someone to prison or death.  It’s a great responsibility.  It’s heavy.”  Years later he remains haunted by the people he couldn’t save.

After the war, Mr. Kaminsky didn’t plan to keep working as a forger, but there were lives to save. From 1946 – 1948, at a time when the United Kingdom was imposed quotes limiting immigration, he helped forge documents for Jewish refuges seeking to go to Palestine. He played a role in the Algerian war of independence, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the Vietnam War – making documents for American draft dodgers – and while I am uncomfortable with some of the causes – the motivation to save life stands out as his motivation.

Finding a way amidst the terror of the Nazis and the oppressive Vichy government reminds us that evil can be opposed, diminished and derailed by the determination and courage of people like you and me.  These stories remind us what humans can accomplish.  For years, Adolfo Kaminsky did not tell his story.  His daughter Sarah learned her father’s whole story only while writing a book about him that just came out in English translation. There is also a documentary film about him called Forging Identity.  Like so many other stories – many are only now emerging – and it is up to us to share them.

It’s not just the lessons of courage and saving lives.  It is that the circumstances he faced and describes are still occurring to today – just with different details. There are children and their families in peril – fleeing oppression and needing help. They board shabby boats to escape by sea – and while false papers are not the solution that will help right now – our activism can save lives.  It is why I am asking up to passionately embrace the organization IsraAID, HIAS, Doctors without Borders that are making such a difference around the world.  Stories like Adolfo Kaminisky touch us and inspire us – and remind us that we to