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Wednesday 22 February 2023

Adolfo Kaminsky by Sarah Kaminsky


On the internet there are numerous photographs which testify to the love Sarah Kaminsky felt for her father, Adolfo Kaminsky, who died in January 2023 aged 97. Her biography was published in France in 2018 and several translations have already been made. Sarah Kaminsky is the youngest of his children, born when Adolfo was in his fifties. Before then there were other children by other partners and then three by his last and longest-term parrtner, Leïla Kaminsky. As I read this book I lost track of how many partners and children there were in total but it’s clear enough that many were neglected. As a young man of nineteen, Adolfo is a handsome fellow in the photograph reproduced in the book; he remains handsome and well-groomed in the internet photographs of old age.

Sarah Kaminsky’s book is a monument to her father. It’s written as if by Adolfo, in the first person, and in the Prologue there is a sketch of what was involved in researching it: note-taking of conversations with her father; interviews with others. I read the book as if listening to a reliable narrator but then had doubts because the narrator built out of the research seems to have such perfect recall; more or less every narrative has a beginning, middle and end. Memory is just not that good. So it may be that the biography is more romanesque than it presents itself as being. It’s certainly a fascinating read and quite, quite different to another book by a forger previously reviewed on this site, Shaun Greenhalgh’s A Forger’s Tale (reviewed 19 July 2018). The aims, motives, satisfactions could not be more different except for the evident pride in technical accomplishment.

Another relevant book for comparison would be with Marie Jalowicz Simon Untergetaucht [Underground in Berlin] based on tape recordings made by her son towards the end of Marie’s life and narrating the life of a young Jewish woman living underground in Berlin during the War.

Adolfo Kaminsky was the child of Russian-Jewish emigrés of the leftist kind who sought refuge from the Bolsheviks in France, were expelled and made their way to Argentina (where Kaminsky was born) and then made their way back.  His parents reckoned they would be safe in rural France even after the Germans arrived in 1940; they weren’t. His mother was probably murdered by the Germans and the rest of the family ended up in Drancy bound for Auschwitz and only got out thanks to an intervention by the Argentinian consul - they still had Argentinian nationality.

Kaminsky began in his teens a thirty year career as a forger of false documents and worked first in the service of the French resistance, particularly those parts finding safe houses or escape routes for Jews. Later, he worked briefly for the immediate post-Liberation French security services and then for a long succession of liberation movements, notably the Algerian FLN, and for those fleeing repressive regimes. He retired from his always-unpaid work as forger in 1971 when he felt that he was about to be caught and go to prison. He produced false documents in prodigious quantities, dozens or more at a time, and not only French ones - forging Swiss passports was very satisfying because they were supposed to be the most highly protected against forgery. But he would only forge for those he believed to be morally and politically worthy of support. He tried to draw a firm line against organisations which used terrorist violence. That complicated his immediate post-war work for Zionist movements working to drive the British out of Palestine. One remarkable story in the book (pages 125-28) sees him agree to make the timer for a Stern gang (Lehi) bomb which will kill the British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin. He makes the timer but with one special feature; it won't work. 

One must remember that the post-war France in which Kaminsky did most of his work was not a country of liberty, equality or fraternity but a repressive state more like those headed by Franco and Salazar and many of whose citizens were nostalgic for Vichy (and remain so to this day). A great deal of repressive violence was deployed, especially in Paris, where Maurice Papon became Chief of Police in 1958. He was eventually tried and convicted of wartime crimes against humanity - but not until 1998 when he was at the end of a highly successful police and political career spanning fifty years during which time he was directly responsible for the deaths of many innocent people, notably in the massacres of demonstrators in 1961 and 1962. To this day, it is unclear how many dead there were. See Papon’s Wkipedia entry.

Writing that about Paris, I remembered an occasion when I was invited to a private party (a small one) where the front door was opened not by the host but by his Security. The host, living in some Parisian banlieue, was from North Africa who even as late as 1971 might well receive unwelcome visitors. I forget the details and it’s pointless to speculate who invited me or why. Paris in 1971 is also the only place where I have ever been stopped and asked to show my papers to a police officer. I was walking back to my room from the cinema, late one evening. I was carrying my Carte de Séjour (it was obligatory to do so) and as he handed it back to me the officer saluted. I guess it helped to be English not North African.