Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day—a time to commemorate the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.
What better way to commemorate their memory than to celebrate one of the heroes of the Holocaust, who risked their lives to save the Jews and others.
Question: How does an 18-year-old boy, whose formal education ended at age 13, a boy whose life experiences were limited to: 1) selling hosiery, 2) working in an aircraft factory, 3) working for a clothes dyer and dry cleaner, and 4) working at a dairy, have the skills to save a life during the Holocaust? And not just one life, but thousands of lives—by some estimates up to 14,000—most of them Jewish?
Answer: By becoming a forger.
Adolfo Kaminsky was born October 1, 1925 in Argentina, a member of a nomadic family that saw his Russian-Jewish parents initially flee the Tsarist’s pogroms in late 19th-Century, landing in France. In 1917 France expelled the family, suspecting they sympathized with the Bolshevik Revolution, whereupon they fled to Argentina. There, Adolfo, the second of four children, was born. In 1932, armed with Argentinian passports, the family returned to France (following a stay in Turkey), ultimately settling in with relatives Vire, Normandy.
Adolfo quit school at age 13 to help his struggling family financially. He first tried selling hosiery with his uncle, who was too overbearing, so he began working in an aircraft factory instead. When France fell to the Germans in the summer of 1940, the factory was seized and all the Jewish workers summarily fired.
Not yet even 15 years-old, Adolfo answered a want-ad to become an apprentice to a clothes dyer. Soon the apprentice—through trial and error, experiments at home, and reading chemistry textbooks—was handling the most difficult cases for his master, making even stubborn stains magically disappear. Thoroughly smitten with chemistry and the world of color (he had set up his own lab at home) Adolfo took a weekend job to work with a chemist at a local dairy. There he learned how to test the fat content of butter as follows: he would add methylene blue to the cream and measure how quickly the lactic acid dissolved the color. In that way he learned that lactic acid could erase Waterman blue ink, the kind used on French identity cards.
In 1943, Kaminsky’s family was arrested and detained for three months in Drancy, France, a transit camp for Jews slated to be sent to death camps, primarily Auschwitz. Fortunately, the Nazis still respected the family’s Argentinian passports, and they were released after three months, but prudence dictated that they get false identity papers.
Adolfo was tasked with obtaining the necessary forged papers from the French Resistance. In the process the Resistance learned about Adolfo’s facility with chemicals, leading to this colloquy:
“You know how to remove ink stains?”
“Yes,” Adolfo answered, “That’s even my specialty.”
“But what about indelible ink?”
“There’s no such thing.”
Soon, young Adolfo was spending all his time heading a secret laboratory located in an apartment building in Paris’ Latin Quarter, dissolving Jewish names on existing identity documents and substituting new, Gentile-sounding names. (The lab’s occupants posed as artists to explain away the chemical odors emanating from the apartment.)
As Adolfo’s skill increased, so did the demand for his services. He learned how to “age” paper; to make letterheads; to create type fonts and watermarks; and to fashion his own official looking rubber stamps. No request was refused. One time Kaminsky and his fellow forgers received an emergency request. Three hundred Jewish children needed new 1) birth certificates, 2) baptismal certificates and 3) ration cards—900 documents in all. As Kaminsky explained: “The math was simple. In one hour, I made 30 fake documents. If I slept for one hour, 30 people would die. . . . So I worked and worked until I passed out. When I woke up, I kept working. We couldn’t sleep. We finished the documents just in time.”
The work was mentally demanding—one lapse or error could result in the holder’s imprisonment or death, and physically demanding—Kaminsky would eventually go blind in one eye from always peering through a magnifying glass or microscope. Nor was there any glory in his work—no one could know the forger’s own identity. Hanging over all his work was the constant risk of detection—and certain death—if caught. Above all he was haunted by “the people I couldn’t save.”
Kaminsky continued forging documents for a variety of causes—some controversial—for many years after the war ended. But he never questioned the value of his work during World War II. In one interview he stated:
“When you have the chance to save even one human life, you must. It’s elemental.”
Adolfo Kaminsky died January 9, 2023, at his home in Paris, aged 97.
Perhaps Kaminsky’s final words are the most important lesson we should remember on Holocaust Remembrance Day: “Of course, everything I did was illegal. But when something legal is against humanity, you have to fight.”