“On Every Document Rests the Life or Death of a Human Being”: Adolfo Kaminsky, Master of the Art of Deception
Since at least Sun Tzu, the art of deception has been deemed integral to the waging of war. The ability to successfully mislead an enemy about the size, location, and goals of one’s forces has often ensured success on the battlefield. Deception in wartime, though, has taken many guises through the centuries.
The long and astounding life of Adolfo Kaminsky (1925–2023) typifies a quite modern form of deception—the art of forging documents. Recognized as one of the great rescuers not only in World War II, but in all of modern history proper, Kaminsky died at his home in Paris on January 9, 2023, at the age of 97. In a presentation during The National WWII Museum’s International Conference in 2022, historian Sarah Bennett Farmer estimated that Kaminsky’s forgeries during the Second World War saved more than 14,000 Jews from deportation to the Nazi extermination camps. Other researchers estimate 10,000. Either number is almost miraculous. Most of those rescued were children.
Born in October 1925 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, his parents, Salomon and Anna Kaminsky, were Russian Jews who had once been part of the Bund, a key socialist organization of the Jewish workers’ movement in the Russian Empire. Later, Kaminsky recounted, “During my life, I helped thousands of people cross borders.” He knew firsthand the centrality of borders and the ability to traverse them. After getting out of Russia, his mother and father had been expelled from France for their socialist politics in the fateful year of 1917. The family (Adolfo had three siblings) would spend time in Argentina and Turkey before settling in France in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression. Living first in Paris, then moving to Vire in Normandy, Adolfo was initiated into the world of labor and livelihood in a factory producing instruments for the French aircraft industry.
The German invasion and occupation of France in 1940 placed everything for the Kaminskys in extreme peril. After the Nazis purged the factory in Normandy of its Jewish workers, Adolfo found employment as an apprentice to a clothes dyer. As part of the job, he honed special skills in changing the colors of and removing stains from garments. He absorbed, too, what he could from a pharmacist. Later, these abilities made him a gigantic asset for the French Resistance.
Tragedy struck the Kaminsky family like a sledgehammer during this time. Adolfo’s mother, Anna, was killed, mysteriously, between Vire and Paris after successfully warning her brother that the Gestapo was on his trail. News of her death seared him. Adolfo retaliated by building detonators for resistance fighters in Normandy.
Things darkened even more for Adolfo in 1943. As the Germans now occupied all of France, confrontations between them and the resistance movement, emboldened after Hitler’s defeats at Stalingrad and North Africa, grew in intensity and number. Deportations of Jews from France to the extermination camps escalated. In late 1943, the Kaminskys were among the Jewish families rounded up and transported from Vire, first to Caen, then to Drancy. The latter, a name in French history that will forever evoke sorrow and revulsion, was a transit camp in the northeastern suburbs of Paris. Administered initially by French police who yielded to direct SS control in July 1943, some 64,000 Jews passed through Drancy during World War II. Most of the trains from the transit camp went to Auschwitz-Birkenau. A smaller number of Jews from France were sent to Sobibór. Only about 2,000 of them survived.
The Kaminskys spent three dispiriting months in Drancy. While admiring the dignity of individuals he encountered there, Adolfo lost so much weight during the incarceration. Fear that they would never be released did not relent. Deliverance from this nightmare came after communication with the Argentinian consulate. According to Hannah Sassoon, the Argentinian citizenship the family still held led to a near-miraculous intervention. Miscommunication between the SS, collaborationist French police, and the administration at Drancy abetted their case. Adolfo and his family were released from the camp.
Now in Paris, the 18-year-old Kaminsky sought documentation that would protect him and members of his family from any future Nazi deportations. This required procuring forgeries of extremely high quality. His search led to contacts with resistance groups in Paris. A forger in a Jewish group calling itself "the 6th," who went by the codename “Penguin,” discovered, while working on fake papers for the young man, that Kaminsky had apprenticed with a clothes dyer and was acquainted with some remarkable techniques for getting rid of ink. Quickly, he recruited Kaminsky into his underground group.
Laboring in a secret laboratory (it presented itself to the outside world as an artist's studio) in Paris under the pseudonym Julien Keller, Kaminsky soon became a member of the French Resistance. Never asking for compensation, he risked everything to forge papers for people in the most dire of straits. “On every document rests the life or death of a human being,” he recalled. The skills and the time he pledged to his comrades—and the absolute risks he shared with them—defined Kaminsky’s existence for eight decades.
For Adolfo Kaminsky, resisting meant maintaining the highest degree of care for his work. He knew how to excise blue ink from paper (using the lactic acid from cream), considered impossible by many. The technique of duplicating typefaces he also mastered. Tasks assigned to him necessitated, too, pressing his own paper. Kaminsky understood photoengraving as well, allowing for the production of letterheads, watermarks, and rubber stamps. From the clandestine laboratory streamed a series of fabricated birth certificates, passports, and ration cards. At such a young age and incurring so much danger, Kaminsky transformed into a craftsman with impeccable talents and seemingly boundless energy.
Errors, even the smallest, could equal death for all involved. So could physical exhaustion. Kaminsky remembered his most demanding mission. Some 300 children needed papers immediately. Thus, 900 documents had to be created. “The math was simple. In one hour, I make 30 fake documents. If I slept for one hour, 30 people would die.” Kaminsky persevered. The papers were forged and the children avoided deportation.
Thousands more Jewish children would survive the Nazi genocide, thanks to a man, a master of the art of deception, who remained in the shadows. Kaminsky paid a steep price, though, for his labors as a rescuer. The strain of the work would ruin the sight in his right eye.
After World War II, he continued to aid people in crisis—Algerians fighting for independence from France, individuals in anti-colonial struggles against the Portuguese in Guinea-Bissau and Angola, and Americans refusing military service in Vietnam. Supporting himself as a commercial photographer and instructor of photography, Kaminsky did not back away from these resistance activities until the early 1970s. Even then, he stayed silent for many more years, fearful of action from French authorities for what he had done.
Fortunately, we are left with an extensive record of what Kaminsky did. His daughter, Sarah Kaminsky, published a biography of him, available in English since 2016 as Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life. A short documentary film about him, put together by The New York Times, won an Emmy in 2017. Kaminsky lived by the paradox that deception, at least in the 20th century, was vitally necessary to the pursuit of a truly human, egalitarian, and liberated society. “All humans are equal,” he asserted, “whatever their origins, their beliefs, their skin color. There are no superiors, no inferiors. That is not acceptable for me.”
Jason Dawsey, PhD
Jason Dawsey, PhD, is a Research Historian at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.