Adol­fo Kamin­sky: A Forg­er’s Life

Sarah Kamin­sky; Mike Mitchell, trans.

  • Review
By – September 9, 2016

Sarah Kamin­sky pro­vides a bril­liant biog­ra­phy of an enor­mous­ly com­plex, cre­ative, and hero­ic indi­vid­ual: her father.

Based on Adol­fo Kaminsky’s exten­sive answers to his daughter’s ques­tions, Adol­fo Kamin­sky: A Forger’s Life was first pub­lished in French in 2009 and was sub­se­quent­ly released in many Euro­pean lan­guages before reach­ing Eng­lish readers.

Adol­fo Kaminsky’s remark­able jour­ney was pow­ered by intel­li­gent long­ing and a deep, engag­ing sen­si­tiv­i­ty to per­son­al des­tiny, Jew­ish peo­ple­hood, and free­dom. As a teenag­er, Adol­fo (who wore many names in many roles) was fas­ci­nat­ed by chem­istry and tech­nol­o­gy. Dur­ing the Nazi occu­pa­tion of France, he became an impor­tant mem­ber of the Resis­tance move­ment — a col­lec­tion of loose­ly linked orga­ni­za­tions attempt­ing to under­mine Nazi dom­i­na­tion and save lives in one way or another.

One impor­tant ini­tia­tive of the Resis­tance was its pro­vi­sion of con­vinc­ing iden­ti­ty doc­u­ments that would fool author­i­ties, which enabled many would-be vic­tims of the Holo­caust to avoid arrest (or worse) with these false papers and even cross the bor­ders of Europe to free­dom and safe­ty. Adol­fo became an essen­tial play­er, man­ag­ing to hide his own iden­ti­ty and activ­i­ties while mas­ter­ing the art of forgery. This art includ­ed the fab­ri­ca­tion of authen­tic-seem­ing papers, inks, dyes, seals, sol­vents, and bind­ings of all kinds, as well as typog­ra­phy, sig­na­ture forg­ing, stain removal, and the pro­duc­tion of rub­ber stamps. Adol­fo invent­ed solu­tions to tech­ni­cal prob­lems and also devel­oped skill as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er, which quick­ly proved itself anoth­er use­ful tool in his forgery career — and some­thing he could use to sup­port him­self: though often starv­ing, Adol­fo took no mon­ey for his forgery efforts.

Almost always work­ing under great pres­sure and nev­er able to refuse to the mount­ing requests for hun­dreds and thou­sands of per­fect doc­u­ments to be pro­duced on short notice, Adol­fo sac­ri­ficed any kind of nor­mal life to help save the lives of oth­ers. He was a man always in hid­ing, not only for him­self but also the large body of sup­plies and equip­ment need­ed to car­ry on his work. Though he helped many con­cen­tra­tion camp sur­vivors make their way to Pales­tine, Adolfo,himself a mem­ber of the Haganah, did not take the oppor­tu­ni­ty, as he was dis­il­lu­sioned by poli­cies of the emerg­ing Jew­ish nation.

A sec­ond stage of his career as a mas­ter forg­er for free­dom was his sup­port of the Alger­ian War, sup­ply­ing the FLN (Nation­al Lib­er­a­tion Front) with the doc­u­ments need­ed by those fight­ing to over­throw French rule. Lat­er, he per­formed sim­i­lar ser­vices for lib­er­a­tion move­ments else­where in Europe, in Africa, and in South America.

Adol­fo Kamin­sky, born into a Jew­ish fam­i­ly and for most of his life hold­ing a legit­i­mate Argen­tin­ian pass­port, spent thir­ty years of his life on the edge of expo­sure and exhaus­tion. One strength of this book is the vivid por­tray­al of these con­di­tions and heart-pound­ing emo­tions: the con­stant race against time, the strong sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty for mak­ing good on impos­si­ble promis­es to the many lives in Adolfo’s hands. Almost every episode of this biog­ra­phy has a thriller dimen­sion that out­shines even the best under­cov­er fiction.

While Adol­fo, as the book’s nar­ra­tor, remains cen­ter-stage, the sto­ry is filled with dozens of coura­geous, intrigu­ing char­ac­ters, cogs in the wheels of free­dom fight­ing. From them Adol­fo learns that the line between resis­tance’ and ter­ror­ism’ is some­times very fine, dif­fi­cult to feel.” This nec­es­sary book pro­vides unfor­get­table insights into hid­den worlds of the Jews, intel­lec­tu­als, and par­ti­sans who fought back.

Acknowl­edg­ments, epi­logue, notes, pho­tographs by Adol­fo Kamin­sky, pref­ace, prologue.

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

Discussion Questions