Sarah Kaminsky can’t pinpoint the exact moment when she learned that her father Adolfo had been a forger during World War II. His clandestine past was just something that revealed itself over time.
“I don’t think anybody told me,” Kaminsky explains to The Times of Israel over the phone from LA. The French-Algerian actor, scriptwriter and author is currently co-writing a screenplay there. “I think my brothers and I heard it during conversations over dinners. But when we were young we didn’t really understand what forgery was.”
By the time she was in her teens, she was aware that her father’s name was mentioned in books, written by friends of his who had been members of the French Resistance.
“When I realized that he did forgery,” she says, “I couldn’t really believe it because he’s really moral and respects the rules. He always taught us to be respectful of the law so we couldn’t believe that he was involved in illegal activity. But [eventually] we understood that even though he did things illegally, it was within his parameters of a fierce moral structure.”
Sarah Kaminsky’s biography, “Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life” chronicles her father’s experience as a forger, which spanned a period of almost three decades.
‘He always taught us to be respectful of the law so we couldn’t believe that he was involved in illegal activity’
He began working for the French Resistance at the age of 17, specializing in identity documents. His papers saved the lives of thousands of Jews.
He went on to serve many revolutionary causes in the world, including the Algerian Independence Movement and the South African anti-apartheid movement, never taking payment for any of his work.
The book talks about Adolfo’s ingenious methods for creating forgeries and gives an unflinching account of the personal sacrifices he made to carry out his highly covert work. It also recounts the effect his political and idealistic commitments had on his family.
“A Forger’s Life,” which was originally published in 2009, became a bestseller in France and has since been translated into seven languages including Hebrew, Turkish and Arabic — and now, finally, English. Sarah Kaminsky spoke about the biography on March 5 at Jewish Book Week in London.
Kaminsky says she was prompted to write the book after the birth of her son. Her father was then 77 (he is now 91) and she was fearful that her son might not have the opportunity to know his grandfather and learn about his remarkable life. To her delight, he gave his approval.
But before they began working on the project together, Kaminsky set firm ground rules: her father had to respond to all of her questions, even if they took him back to painful events of the past. He agreed, but their first session was particularly challenging.
Kaminsky had brought a Dictaphone to record their conversations, but it became evident that “it was very, very difficult for him to talk, to answer my questions.”
She realized that her father had subconsciously associated the Dictaphone with the idea of an interrogation, so she decided to abandon the machine, a move that immediately freed him up to speak.
Over the course of two years, the two had bi-weekly work sessions where they managed to forget their relationship as father and daughter.
It was not the first time Adolfo had spoken about his experiences. Kaminsky’s mother also knew a lot, she says, and Adolfo had contributed to documentary films. There had been a prior attempt to work on a book, but he had not felt comfortable with the author.
“Possibly because she was a journalist — the same story as with the Dictaphone, I think,” says Kaminsky. “Now he talks very easily but then he was [a little] suspicious because all his life he had had to keep everything so secret.”
She admits to being amazed at the beginning of the process.
‘I felt like I was discovering somebody. It was like being introduced to someone else — to a man, not my father’
“I felt like I was discovering somebody. It was like being introduced to someone else — to a man, not my father,” she says.
But what struck her most was his level of sacrifice — financial, professional, as well as emotional. He was always short of money as he refused payment from the networks that he served. He worked as a photographer to make a living, but was unable to pursue it to its full potential because of his commitment to the causes, says Kaminsky.
“His love life — and his personal life — was always a disaster. Yet he continued to help others,” she says.
His double life was the cause of many misunderstandings and many break ups, even causing a two year absence from his first wife and children.
Despite the depth of trust between them, there were times when talking to his daughter was difficult.
“He had all these sad stories and I think he didn’t really want to share them with me,” Kaminsky says. “Some memories, even now, always make him cry. For example, the death of his mother [who was killed by the Nazis]. It’s still a very big trauma for him — as is the death of his family friend, Dora.”
Dora and her father were prisoners at Drancy, an internment camp located by a suburb northeast of Paris, with Adolfo and his family. After the death of her father, they tried — and failed — to pass Dora off as a member of their family. She was later deported. Adolfo always presumed that she died in Auschwitz. In the book, he admits that, “time has not erased the immense feeling of guilt it has left me with.”
Kaminsky believes that their encounters were a form of emotional release for him.
“He never saw a psychologist or had therapy, and he didn’t really have the words to express his feelings. There were times he used to say, ‘I did this because I had to do it,’ in response to my questions, so I used to write what I thought he was feeling and [later check it out] with him. Now he can use these words — it’s easier for him to speak about his experience.”
In addition to the in-depth conversations she had with her father, Kaminsky’s research took her all over the world, where she met his friends and former colleagues. In the book’s preface, she says that there was an urgency, “to collect as many accounts as possible before there were no more witnesses left.”
Fortunately, they were receptive to her interviews. Some were with people she had known since she was very young.
“I was very lucky to be the daughter of my father, to be honest,” she says, laughing. “They [his friends] are all the same. They are used to hiding the truth and it’s usually difficult to [gain] their trust, but because I was my father’s daughter, they were really kind. For me, meeting them was the most interesting thing. What I was told was always so surprising.”
The man that she knew — her shy, kind, pacifist father — was different from what she was told about him, “that he was tough, very straight and wanted to be sure that the rules were [followed] so that nobody would be caught by the police.”
She learned that he had “a hard character. I couldn’t imagine my father being like that,” she says.
To ensure accuracy, she undertook extensive historical research and fact-checked the information that Adolfo told her. They also visited significant places together to help Adolfo with his recollections.
“Although his memory is really good, it was easier for him to remember [details] when he was in the places that we were talking about,” she says.
‘He never saw a psychologist or had therapy, and he didn’t really have the words to express his feelings’
This included buildings that had housed the laboratories where he had worked.
“We knocked on doors, explained that we were working on a book and that there used to be a lab for forged documents in the building. We’d [politely] request to come inside, so that I could see how it was then.”
They also went to Drancy.
Adolfo was — and still is — very idealistic, says Kaminsky. Between 1946 and 1948 he worked for the Haganah, helping Jews emigrate to Palestine at a time when immigration quotas were limited. He had fully supported Israel’s creation and had toyed with the idea of going to live there, joining his sister and many of his friends, but eventually decided to remain in France.
In the book he says that he did not want to live in the new state that chose “religion and individualism, because that represented everything I hated.” He had wanted Israel to be a “communal, collectivist and… secular state” believing that this would “cement peaceful coexistence.”
Adolfo Kaminsky gave up working as a forger in 1971. A year later, he moved to Algiers to begin a new life and subsequently met Kaminsky’s mother.
“I’m very happy that he could have a second life,” she says, which has also included a burgeoning career as a photographer.
She attributes the fact that he forged papers for so many years to an overwhelming feeling of being responsible for the lives of others — a sense of sacrifice, born out of survival guilt.
“It was like he had a debt and because of it, he had to continue to be alive [doing what he did],” she says.
When she thinks what she would have done in his position, she likes to believe that she would have stopped earlier.
“I would have begun to think for myself a little bit and tried to have some success in my life.”