(JTA) — Adolfo Kaminsky, the French-Jewish photographer, forger, smuggler and resistance fighter who saved thousands of people during the Holocaust as part of the French underground, died at 97 in his home in Paris on Monday.
Kaminsky’s improbable and heroic story was detailed in a book by his daughter, written in his voice, and in “The Forger,” a New York Times documentary released in 2016.
The child of Russian Jews who fled pogroms, Kaminsky was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in 1925, but moved with his family to France in the early 1930s. As a teenager, he began work in a factory but lost his job when the Nazis occupied the country in 1940 and Jews were dismissed from many industries.
The new job he ultimately found, in a dyer’s shop and dairy factory, would be pivotal not only to his own survival but to that of thousands of Jews in France during the Holocaust.
After a brief stint in a concentration camp, the Kaminskys were released thanks to their Argentine passports. Concerned that their freedom would not last, his father urged him to secure false papers concealing their Jewish identity. Kaminsky did so and became adept at creating such papers himself, using the skills and chemistry knowledge gained in the dyer’s shop to remove obviously Jewish names from identity documents.
His work led him to be recruited by the French Resistance, and he stepped up his involvement after his mother was killed on her way back to Paris after warning his brother of an impending arrest. Tasked with producing false documents, he once fabricated more than 1,000 for children in just three days, forcing himself not to sleep in the process.
“In one hour I can make 30 blank documents. If I sleep for an hour 30 people will die,” Kaminsky said in the 2016 documentary.
Over the course of the war, he produced enough documents to save the lives of 14,000 Jews.
“I saved lives because I can’t deal with unnecessary deaths — I just can’t,” he said. “All humans are equal, whatever their origins, their beliefs, their skin color. There are no superiors, no inferiors. That is not acceptable for me.”
His forgeries didn’t end with the liberation of France or the Nazis’ surrender. Instead, he continued to create fake documents for the Bricha movement, which smuggled displaced Jews to Mandatory Palestine, and supported the Irgun and Lehi, Jewish militias working for Israeli independence.
In the decades to follow, Kaminsky put his skills to work for the Algerian National Liberation Front as it threw off the yoke of French colonialism in the 1960s, as well as a variety of other left-wing revolutionary movements across Latin America and Europe. He finally gave up the political causes in the 1970s, settling in Algiers and later moving back to France where he worked full-time as a photographer.
Kaminsky is survived by his wife, two daughters, two sons and nine grandchildren.