Among the horrors of something like World War II, it can be hard to remember that there were heroes who rose up to help others. Because of the secretive nature that was required to help the Jewish people during WWII, a lot of these heroes were never identified and have faded into history, unnamed.
Adolfo Kaminsky was one such hero, except we know his name and the extraordinary things he did to save lives. Born in Argentina, a complicated set of circumstances led to Adolfo losing beloved family members to the Nazis, being imprisoned, and then becoming a master forger to help others find their freedom.
Every moment of his secret years as a forger was fraught with danger, but he persevered, and in the end, saved many lives.
The Early Life of Adolfo Kaminsky
Born in Argentina, Adolfo Kaminsky was part of a Jewish Russian family. His father was a tailor by trade, and Adolofo took a keen interest in the chemistry of dyes and colors for clothing as a child.
At seven years old, in 1932, Adolofo and his family moved from Argentina to Paris. Not long after, they moved again to the city of Vire to join Adolfo’s uncle. Still pursuing his interest in dye chemistry, Adolofo made a lab in his uncle’s basement and eventually acquired a job as an assistant to a chemist at a dye factory. The chemist taught Adolofo the basics.
There, Adolfo learned two things that would be incredibly helpful in his future life as a resistance forger–how to change colors, and how to remove ink. At the time, it seemed that Adolfo was destined for a life as a dye chemist.
But then, the war happened.
The Death of Adolfo Kaminksy’s Mother and His Time at Drancy
In 1940, Germany invaded France, sowing the seeds for Adolfo to eventually join the French Resistance. This invasion was catastrophic for a lot of people, and Adolfo’s family wasn’t spared any heartache.
His family was forced from their house in Vire, and he had to live elsewhere for some time. The danger was heating up for the family at a breakneck pace, coming to a boiling point when Adolfo’s mother left to warn his brother that the Gestapo was after him. His mother succeeded in her mission, but on the train ride back to Vire, mysteriously died after “falling from a train”.
Adolfo and the rest of his family believed that she was pushed. Heartbroken and furious, this was the catalyst for Adolfo to join the resistance fighters. He started by building detonators, not yet having the chance to use his skills as a dye worker.
By 1943, Germany occupied all of France, and Adolfo’s family was targeted soon enough for deportation to the extermination camps.
His family was caught and transported from Vire to the transit camp outside of Paris called Drancy. Thousands of Jews would leave Drancy and be sent to places like Auschwitz, and for a time, it looked like this fate would befall the Kaminsky family as well.
They were kept in Drancy for months, but then, a beacon of hope came from the Argentinian consulate. Adolfo had spent only a small portion of his life in Argentina, but he and the rest of his family were still Argentinian citizens. This citizenship would prove to be a miracle for the family, and they were released from Drancy.
The Forgeries Begin
Kaminsky was only 18 when he was freed from Drancy, but that didn’t stop him from being proactive in making sure his family would never be detained again. Adolfo knew that he needed documentation to protect himself and his family and that next time, Argentinian citizenship might not be enough.
Since he had been working with the French Resistance before his deportation to Drancy, it wasn’t difficult for Adolfo to contact them once more.
Adolfo found himself working with a Jewish forger who went by the codename “Penguin”. Penguin was a member of a resistance group called “The 6th”, and during the process of making the fake papers for Kaminsky, he discovered the young man’s incredible talent for chemical forgery.
Most notably, Adolfo offered a solution for removing blue Waterman ink stains–lactic acid. Incredibly, it worked, and Adolfo was quickly recruited into the resistance.
Adolfo Kaminsky–Master Forger
Soon after being recruited, Adolfo’s immense talents led him to become the head of the chemical forgery lab for the resistance. The lab, which appeared to be an artist’s studio from the outside, would become Kamnsky’s command center. And there, he would work to save thousands of lives.
Adolfo Kaminsky worked day and night, churning out false paperwork at such a speed that he worked himself to exhaustion many times. He knew all too well the importance of the documents he produced, and how just one could mean life or death for an individual. Adolfo shunned sleep, staying awake as long as he could to continue work.
At one point Kaminsky was tasked with creating 900 documents that were needed immediately to save 300 Jewish children. The pace should have been impossible, but not for Kaminsky. He would later say,
“Stay awake. As long as possible. Struggle against sleep. The calculation is easy. In one hour, I make 30 false papers. If I sleep one hour, 30 people will die.”
He made the 900 documents, and once they were done, he kept working, day in and day out. Once the war had concluded, Kamisky had created enough documents to save the lives of 14,000 Jews. He worked so hard, so tirelessly, that his right eye would be ruined. To Adolfo, it was a small price to pay.
Quietly and anonymously, Adolfo Kaminsky became a hero.
Life After World War II
Once the war was done, Aldolfo Kaminsky still felt the call to assist those who needed him and his skills as a master forger. He would go on to help resistance fighters in Algeria, Angola, and even Americans who didn’t want to serve in the Vietnam War. He was active as a forger until the 1970s.
Kaminsky would later say that he viewed his forgeries as a way to avenge his mother. He was quoted explaining his life, telling the Times,
“Of course, everything I did was illegal. But when something legal is completely against humanity, you have to fight.”
“IN MEMORIAM Adolfo Kaminsky”
“Adolfo Kaminsky, forger who aided thousands of Jews, dies at 97”