Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Argentina's Heroic Forger

Late last year, I briefly noted the publication of Sarah Kaminsky’s Adolfo Kaminsky, A Forger’s Life, the tale of her father’s service in the French Resistance of World War II. That interested me, partly because Kaminsky is an Argentine, and partly because the Resistance provided forged identification that helped my 94-year-old uncle, who lives in Los Angeles, escape the Nazis after being shot down over France in November of 1943. His own account of traveling across France and into Switzerland is positively cinematic.
The English and Spanish-language versions of Kaminsky's story
I received a copy of Kaminsky’s book from the US publisher but, on my recent trip to Buenos Aires, I purchased a copy of the Spanish-language edition Adolfo Kaminsky El Falsificador, primarily because it includes a prologue about Kaminsky’s boyhood in the Argentine capital. Though he spent only five years there before his parents returned to Europe, he offers surprisingly vivid memories of a free-range boyhood in an immigrant neighborhood that sounds like the edge of Barrio Norte (he mentions living on Calle Ecuador, apparently near Avenida Córdoba, but is not more specific than that). 
The intersection of Ecuador and Paraguay is roughly where the Kaminskys lived in Buenos Aires.
Kaminsky’s mother, born in Tbilisi, married his Russian-born father in Paris during World War I. Given the disorder in Europe, heightened by the Bolshevik Revolution, the family had moved to Buenos Aires, where Adolfo was born in 1925. Interestingly, when the family returned to France, what struck him was the contrast with Buenos Aires, the noise from the cars, trams and trucks that crowded Parisian streets—“It was so different from Calle Ecuador!” In the ensuing century, Buenos Aires has more than caught up.

The return to Europe didn’t go as expected because the French would not grant the family immediate residence, and they spent two years in Turkey waiting for permission to return. The lack of papers, Kaminsky implies, may have inspired his interest in falsifying documents: “Nothing destined me to become a forger but, however, those papers that my family needed when I was a child were going to govern my life.”

Only 14 when World War II broke out, Kaminsky (and his Jewish family) survived the earliest years of the German occupation because of their nationality—Argentina remained a neutral country until nearly the end of the conflict. Adolfo, meanwhile, had acquired skills in printing, dyeing and photography that allowed him to produce passports and other papers that saved as many as 3,000 Jews from the Nazis.

Eventually, the Kaminskys themselves had to scatter and hide—with the help of Adolfo’s bogus documents—but after the liberation of Paris he provided Allied forces with new forgeries that helped them infiltrate German lines. After the war, he assisted European Jews in reaching Palestine—though he deplored Zionism—and then helped figures in the Algerian independence movement move between North Africa and Europe. He prided himself in never charging for his services—everything was pro bono for causes that he either supported or saw as a better alternative to the status quo.

Kaminsky did his last forgery in 1971 and lived in Algeria for a decade, marrying a Tuareg woman, before finally returning to France in the early 1990s. His daughter’s persistent inquiry into her father’s murky history eventually resulted in this book, presented as a memoir from a hero who, accustomed to staying in the background, refrained from boastfulness.

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