A Forger’s Life:
I have read plenty of WWII novels and biographies, and Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life could easily be the most unique and fascinating.
The book opens in a very alive and suspenseful way and reads like a thriller. For me, this was due to the fact that the translator kept the use of what we call in French the “historical present“. Also, while writing the life of her father, Sarah Kamisky realized she could not write it in the third person, as if her father were dead. So she opted for the first person, a wonderful choice.
At not even 20, Adolfo started working as a forger. Thanks to his experience as a young printer (for a school newspaper), as a dyer, and to his passion for chemistry, he turned out to be an outstanding forger, making his own paper, rubber stamps, inks, and using photoengraving for letterhead paper and watermarks.
He would sacrifice himself so much that he would sometimes pass out by mere exhaustion because of his lack of sleep and the energy needed for the meticulousness of the tasks.
Stay awake. For as long as possible. Fight against sleep. It’s a simple calculation: in one hour I can make thirty blank documents; if I sleep for an hour, thirty people will die…
He knew the more forged papers he would produce, the more lives he would save, from the horrors of the concentration camps at first.
Born in Argentina in a Jewish family, he arrived in Paris before he was 5. His Argentinian papers allowed him to be released from the dreadful Drancy camp (from where prisoners were directly sent to German camps), even though he was sent twice to it. A smart and passionate young man, he used his months there to learn algebra and arithmetic from another prisoner!
I was amazed by his dedication and his high moral standards, not even inspired by his faith, as Adolfo (note the “irony” of his first name!) declares himself an atheist. Even in his teen years, he felt guilty when not able to convince people to accept his free help.
After the war, he experienced a difficult reintegration into “normal” life and would be indelibly marked by the people he had not been able to save.
At one point, he was asked to produce a large amount of forged banknotes as a last means of pressure to give independence to Algeria. They eventually were not needed, so he burnt them all. Not sure how many of us, in possession of perfect forged banknotes, would refuse to use them…
After the Liberation of Paris, his forger’s skills were put to use to many other causes, such as the French army’s secret service, the National Liberation Front in Algeria during the Algerian War of Independence, Basque revolutionaries, anti-Franco Spanish republicans, Dominican Republic revolutionaries and others throughout South America, anti-apartheid movements in South Africa, and even American deserters who refused to serve in Vietnam. He also trained other forgers.
My life as a forger is one long, uninterrupted resistance for, after the Nazis, I continued to resist inequality, segregation, racism, injustice, fascism and dictatorships, with the only weapons at my disposal –technical knowledge, ingenuity and unshakable utopian ideals
and I would add amazing integrity and self-sacrifice for the sake of others.
But he quit whenever he was asked to do jobs that were against his principles. He never accepted money for his services, not wanting to be a mercenary, but also to be able to preserve his independence and make it easier to stop helping a movement if it started organizing terrorist attacks, for instance.
I’d always make sure that my knowledge and technical skill were solely used in the service of legitimate causes. I’d always make sure I never compromised with my sense of ethics, of morality.
He was also amazingly daring and creative. Once, he found the solution to forge some extremely challenging Swiss passports in a dream!
Adolfo was also a great photographer. Some of his beautiful back and white pictures are included at the end of the book.
As his official profession, he would produce some giant format pictures for cinema sets. But he would often be broke, as his free forgeries would not leave him enough time to practice his official paying profession, all for the sake of saving as many lives as possible.
Feeling in great danger, he quit his forger’s and all clandestine political activities after thirty years, in 1971. That’s also the time when Sarah stops retelling us in details the life of her father.
After that, he taught photography, photoengraving and printing in an Algerian university. Because of the rising of religious fundamentalism in that country, his wife decided they move to France with their three children.
VERDICT: Remarkable portrait of a hero who sacrificed his time and energy to save as many lives as possible through his unusual skills as a forger. Extremely inspiring story for our time, when the great people of our world rarely give us examples of justice and integrity.
Author: Sarah Kaminsky
Publication: Oct 18, 2016
Genre: Nonfiction, History, Biography, World War II
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