Passports and other documents that Adolfo Kaminsky forged during World War II 

Courtesy Sarah Kaminsky

Standards

Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.7, RH.6-8.9, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.6, SL.6-8.1, SL.6-8.2

 

C3 (D2/6-8): Geo.2, His.1, His.3, His.4, His.14 

 

NCSS: Civic ideals and practices; Individuals, groups, and institutions

The Forger

How a teenager forged documents that helped thousands of Jews escape the Nazis during World War II

It reads like something out of a spy novel: Risking death at the hands of a brutal dictator, a member of an underground resistance group forges documents that help thousands of people escape to freedom.

Except these events actually happened. And the forger wasn’t an experienced resistance fighter but a shy Jewish teenager in France who had worked as an apprentice (trainee) in a clothes-dyeing/dry-cleaning shop.

During World War II (1939-1945), Adolfo Kaminsky adapted skills he’d learned on the job to make fake IDs and other documents. Those documents helped thousands of fellow Jews in France escape deportation to concentration camps during the Holocaust. The term Holocaust refers to the mass murder of millions of Jews in Europe by German dictator Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party.  

At one point, Kaminsky had three days to produce 900 birth and baptismal certificates and food ration cards to hide the true identities of 300 Jewish children who were about to be rounded up by Nazi authorities. The goal was to deceive the Germans until the children could be sent to safety in the countryside or smuggled into Switzerland or Spain. He fought to stay awake for two straight days, telling himself, In one hour I can make 30 blank documents. If I sleep for an hour, 30 people will die.

Kaminsky is now 91 years old and living in Paris. To understand his heroism requires dipping into a grim chapter of world history. 

It reads like something out of a spy novel: Risking death at the hands of a brutal dictator, a member of an underground resistance group forges documents that help thousands of people escape to freedom.

Except these events actually happened. And the forger wasn’t an experienced resistance fighter. He was a shy Jewish teenager in France. He had worked as an apprentice (trainee) in a clothes-dyeing/dry-cleaning shop.

During World War II (1939-1945), Adolfo Kaminsky adapted skills he’d learned on the job to make fake IDs and other documents. Those documents helped thousands of fellow Jews in France escape deportation to concentration camps during the Holocaust. The term Holocaust refers to the mass murder of millions of Jews in Europe by German dictator Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party.

At one point, Kaminsky had three days to produce 900 birth and baptismal certificates and food ration cards. They were needed to hide the true identities of 300 Jewish children. The kids were about to be rounded up by the Nazis. The goal was to deceive the Germans until the children could be sent to safety in the countryside or smuggled into Switzerland or Spain. Kaminsky fought to stay awake for two straight days. He told himself, In one hour I can make 30 blank documents. If I sleep for an hour, 30 people will die.

Kaminsky is now 91 years old. He lives in Paris. To understand his heroism requires dipping into an ugly chapter of world history. 

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HITLER'S WAR

Anti-Semitism (discrimination against Jews) was ­common in Europe in the 1930s. By the end of the decade, it had escalated into widespread violence. Hitler and the Nazis believed that Jews were racially inferior to ­Germans, part of what Nazis called the Aryan race. The Nazis also blamed the Jews for Germany’s loss in World War I (1914-18) and the economic crisis that ­followed. Hitler devised a plan to conquer Europe and eliminate all of its Jews.

On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, sparking World War II. The conflict eventually pitted the Allies (which included the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union) against the Axis Powers (which included Germany, Italy, and Japan).

The German army soon overran Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and northern France. Southern France officially remained independent, with a government based in the town of Vichy. But the Vichy government worked with the Nazis, helping to deport Jews to places like Auschwitz in Poland, the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps. There, Jews who were deemed unfit to work were put to death in gas chambers ­disguised as showers.

Thousands of Jews were saved, however, by various underground resistance groups. If discovered, members of these groups faced certain death, yet they risked it by hiding Jews, smuggling food or weapons to them, or transporting them to safety. 

Anti-Semitism, or discrimination against Jews, was common in Europe in the 1930s. By the end of the decade, it had escalated into widespread violence. Hitler believed that Jews were racially inferior to Germans, part of what Nazis called the Aryan race. The Nazis blamed the Jews for Germany’s loss in World War I (1914-18). They also blamed them for the economic crisis that followed. Hitler devised a plan to conquer Europe and eliminate all of its Jews.

On September 1, 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland, sparking World War II. The conflict eventually pitted the Allies against the Axis Powers. The Allies included the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. The Axis Powers included Germany, Italy, and Japan.

The German army soon overran Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and northern France. Southern France officially remained independent. It had a government based in the town of Vichy. But the Vichy government worked with the Nazis. They helped to deport Jews to places like Auschwitz in Poland. Auschwitz is the most infamous of the Nazi concentration camps. There, Jews who were deemed unfit to work were put to death in gas chambers disguised as showers.

Thousands of Jews were saved, however, by various underground resistance groups. If discovered, members of these groups faced certain death. They risked their lives by hiding Jews, smuggling food or weapons to them, or transporting them to safety. 

ACTS OF SABOTAGE

Courtesy Sarah Kaminsky

Adolfo Kaminsky was one of those resisters. In 1940, when he was 15 and living in Vire, France, his mother was killed—he believes by Nazis—after trying to warn her brother of his impending arrest. 

Furious at her murder and at the killing of one of his friends by the Germans, Adolfo began engaging in acts of sabotage against them. He used chemicals to rust railway equipment and to make detonators for explosives.

“For the first time, I didn’t feel entirely [powerless] following the death of my mother and my friend,” he later wrote. “I had the feeling I was avenging them.”

In 1943, when Adolfo was 18, his family was arrested and sent to an internment (prison) camp near Paris. But they were released after three months because his ­Russian-born parents had once lived in Argentina, which protested their detention. In time, the family began to fear that their Argentine passports would no longer protect them, so they sent Adolfo to get false documents from the anti-Nazi French underground.

Adolfo Kaminsky was one of those resisters. In 1940, his mother was killed. At the time, he was 15 and living in Vire, France. He believes Nazis killed her. His mother was murdered after trying to warn her brother of his impending arrest.

Adolfo was furious at her murder and at the killing of one of his friends by the Germans. He began engaging in acts of sabotage against them. He used chemicals to rust railway equipment and to make detonators for explosives.

“For the first time, I didn’t feel entirely [powerless] following the death of my mother and my friend,” he later wrote. “I had the feeling I was avenging them.”

In 1943, Adolfo’s family was arrested and sent to an internment (prison) camp near Paris. At the time, Adolfo was 18. He and his family were released after three months. His Russian-born parents had once lived in Argentina. That country protested their detention. In time, the family began to fear that their Argentine passports would no longer protect them. They sent Adolfo to get false documents from the anti-Nazi French underground.

Kaminsky told himself, "If I sleep for an hour, 30 people will die."

The underground agents soon learned that Adolfo had a special talent: He knew how to remove Waterman ink from clothing. Waterman ink was a permanent blue ink used in official documents like ID cards, and no one in the resistance could figure out how to erase it. If Jews had any chance of escaping deportation, typically Jewish names, like Israel or Abraham, had to be removed from documents and replaced with French-sounding names.

Adolfo had learned how to remove stains after dropping out of school at 13 to help support his family. He took a job at a clothes-dyeing/dry-cleaning shop and experimented with chemicals that removed stubborn stains.

The underground agents soon learned that Adolfo had a special talent. He knew how to remove Waterman ink from clothing. Waterman ink was a permanent blue ink used in official documents like ID cards. No one in the resistance could figure out how to erase it. If Jews had any chance of escaping deportation, typically Jewish names, like Israel or Abraham, had to be removed from documents. They had to be replaced with French-sounding names.

Adolfo had learned how to remove stains after dropping out of school at 13 to help support his family. He took a job at a clothes-dyeing/dry-cleaning shop. He experimented with chemicals that removed stubborn stains.

A SECRET LAB

Those skills made Adolfo a key member of a Paris underground ­“laboratory” whose members both altered documents and created new ones. Adolfo also produced various typefaces, which he’d learned to do while editing his school newspaper, to match those used by the authorities. He created his own “official” ­rubber stamps, letterheads, and watermarks. 

Word of the lab spread, and soon Adolfo and his fellow workers were producing 500 documents a week for orders from across Europe. Historians estimate that France’s resistance networks saved tens of thousands of Jews. Still, about 77,000 were killed during the Holocaust.

Those skills made Adolfo a key member of a Paris underground “laboratory” whose members both altered documents and created new ones. Adolfo also produced various typefaces to match those used by the authorities. He learned this skill while editing his school newspaper. He created his own “official” rubber stamps, letterheads, and watermarks.

Word of the lab spread. Soon, Adolfo and his fellow workers were producing 500 documents a week for orders from across Europe. Historians estimate that France’s resistance networks saved tens of thousands of Jews. Still, about 77,000 were killed during the Holocaust.

"ALL HUMAN BEINGS ARE EQUAL"

The work Kaminsky did was extremely dangerous. ­Several of his underground colleagues were arrested and killed after being discovered. Meanwhile, the strain of doing such difficult work for hours eventually cost him his sight in one eye.

After Paris was liberated by the United States and other Allied armies in August 1944, Kaminsky went to work for the French government. He forged German documents that allowed undercover agents to go into German-held ­territory and gather evidence about the concentration camps.

The work Kaminsky did was extremely dangerous. Several of his underground colleagues were arrested and killed after being discovered. Meanwhile, the strain of doing such difficult work for hours eventually cost him his sight in one eye.

After Paris was liberated by the United States and other Allied armies in August 1944, Kaminsky went to work for the French government. He forged German documents that allowed undercover agents to go into German-held territory and gather evidence about the concentration camps.

"I can't accept that some people think they're superior."

His work didn’t end with Germany’s defeat in World War II in 1945. For almost three decades after the war, he forged documents for resistance fighters in conflict-torn nations like Spain, Algeria, and South Africa. He stopped in the early 1970s and continued to make his living in Paris as a ­photographer and photography instructor. Today, he’s often spotted walking through his neighborhood with his cane, recognizable by his long white beard.

So why did Kaminsky risk his life to save strangers?

“I can’t accept that some people think they’re ­superior to others, think other people are inferior,” he said. “All human beings are equal, no matter what their skin color, their nationality, their religion.”

His work didn’t end with Germany’s defeat in World War II in 1945. For almost three decades after the war, he forged documents for resistance fighters in conflict-torn nations like Spain, Algeria, and South Africa. He stopped in the early 1970s. He continued to make his living in Paris as a photographer and photography instructor. Today, he’s often spotted walking through his neighborhood with his cane. He is recognizable by his long white beard.

So why did Kaminsky risk his life to save strangers?

“I can’t accept that some people think they’re superior to others, think other people are inferior,” he said. “All human beings are equal, no matter what their skin color, their nationality, their religion.” 

CORE QUESTION: What skills made Adolfo Kaminsky a valuable member of the resistance movement? Cite evidence from the text.

Europe in 1942

At the height of Germany's power during World War II, Axis nations, led by Germany, dominated Europe. 

At the height of Germany's power during World War II, Axis nations, led by Germany, dominated Europe. 

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

MAP SKILLS

1. What is the capital of Germany? 

2. Which French city labeled on the map was officially independent but worked with Nazi Germany? 

3. Great Britain was part of which partnership?

4. Which body of water forms Bulgaria’s east coast?

5. In which direction would you travel to get from Poland’s capital to Portugal?

6. Which side was Italy on in 1942?

7. Which central European nation was neutral in 1942?

8. Which labeled capital city is southeast of Paris?

9. About how many straight-line miles separate London and Vire?

10. Based on this map, what can you conclude about the Soviet Union in 1942?

1. What is the capital of Germany? 

2. Which French city labeled on the map was officially independent but worked with Nazi Germany? 

3. Great Britain was part of which partnership?

4. Which body of water forms Bulgaria’s east coast?

5. In which direction would you travel to get from Poland’s capital to Portugal?

6. Which side was Italy on in 1942?

7. Which central European nation was neutral in 1942?

8. Which labeled capital city is southeast of Paris?

9. About how many straight-line miles separate London and Vire?

10. Based on this map, what can you conclude about the Soviet Union in 1942? in 1942?

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