When I was little I knew nothing about the story of my father's life. I was the youngest of three children. As far as I could see, I had a father like everyone else's, who always taught me to obey the law. At home he never talked about his earlier life, when he'd been a forger. There was one episode, however, that should have made me think. One day I got a poor grade at school. I was absolutely determined to conceal it from my parents. I decided to forge my mother's signature; I'd never have dared to try and copy my father's, it's absolutely impossible to forge. I practiced for a long time on draft paper before setting about it carefully. Later on my mother happened to come across my notebook and immediately realized that the signature was forged. I really got yelled at. Ashamed of myself, I took refuge in my bed. When my father arrived home from work, he came to my bedroom. Expecting the worst, to be hauled over the coals as never before, I hid under the blankets. He sat down on the side of the bed, my notebook in his hand, and simply burst out laughing. He laughed so much he couldn't stop. Puzzled, I poked my head out of the sheets. Looking at me with a big smile on his face, he declared, “But at least you could have made it a better one, Sarah. Look at this signature, how tiny it is!” Then he went away, laughing uproariously.
I couldn't say precisely when I knew. There was never a family gathering at which our father announced, “Children I have something important to tell you.” It just happened as time passed. When I was very young, I liked to keep my ears pricked to hear what the grown-ups were talking about. I heard it said that he'd been in the Second World War, the Algerian War. But to my little girl's mind, “being in the war” meant to be a soldier. I found it difficult to imagine my father, a pacifist and non-violent, with a helmet and rifle. Later on, books were published in which his name was mentioned; then there were documentaries in which he agreed speak. Eventually, once I was grown-up, I naively thought I knew more or less everything there was to know. I couldn't imagine it would take me several years to gather together and compile all the elements of his biography. There were so many memories to be called up, people to be found, places to be visited.
A lot of travel was needed to find my father's former comrades. The ones I wanted to question were scattered all over the world. One was in Portugal, another in Algeria, yet others in Israel, in Switzerland, in Italy, in the United States, in Latin America … Some were missing, already deceased. It was a matter of urgency to collect as many accounts as possible before there were no more witnesses left. I realized that time had suddenly started to fly. My father was no longer young; he was about to celebrate his seventy-eighth birthday. I was twenty-four, and I'd just had my son, Alec. All this triggered something in my mind: for the first time I realized my father wasn't immortal. The birth of Alec brought its share of joy and wonder, but also this fear: was Alec going to have the time to get to know his grandfather? If that didn't happen, would it be up to me to tell him the story of that remarkable life?
Alec was babbling away in his stroller when I walked to my father's to ask him if he would like me to write the book. He gave his approval immediately. When I was back home, he called me. There was one question bothering him. “Sarah, do you know if there's a statute of limitation?” It was the first thing he wanted to know: did he still risk going to prison, despite the thousands of lives he'd saved? For every time he'd gone to the aid of an oppressed people, he had been breaking the law. At best he risked being sent to prison for his commitment to these causes, at worst condemned to death, and that explains why it took so many years for him to agree to reveal his secrets.
We arranged to see each other every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon. I warned him, “You'll have to answer all my questions, even those that will take you back to past events that are painful. Are you really sure you want to share all that with me?” He agreed enthusiastically. However, the first session turned out to be a disaster. Concerned not to lose the least detail of our conversation, I'd brought a Dictaphone. As soon as I turned it on, my father's voice was transformed. It became hesitant, too low, almost inaudible. He answered my questions with stock replies or a simple “Yes,” “No,” “It wasn't quite like that,” or mere grunts. At the end of the day I had no usable information. I told myself we'd never get there. At the next session I decided not to turn on the Dictaphone. And, as if by magic, it loosened his tongue, his normal voice returned. I realized that the Dictaphone, that simple, inoffensive mike, unwittingly suggested to him the idea of a police interrogation. As if in his eyes I'd become a Gestapo officer. Putting technology to one side, I went out and bought some school notebooks, in which I would record our conversations during a whole year of interviews. Little by little our relationship changed from father and daughter to that of confidants.
What struck me most in the course of our discussions was his feeling of being responsible for the lives of others and guilt at having survived. They are feelings he has retained throughout his life and which doubtless explains why he continued to forge papers for thirty long years, at the cost of all sorts of sacrifices. For sacrifices there were, and many of them. Financial sacrifices for, in order not to be a “mercenary,” he always refused payment for his forged papers, with the result that he was always broke; sacrifices in his relationships, for his double life caused many break-ups—his repeated unexplained absences made his partners think he wasn't truly involved or was even being unfaithful, and eventually left him; family sacrifices, since long before he married my mother, Leïla, he had two grown-up children by an earlier marriage … I was very little and had just arrived in France when my father introduced me to my half-sister and half-brother. Unfortunately he hadn't been able to bring up these earlier children, who were thirty years older than me, the way he would have liked. My sister told me that he once disappeared for two years without sending any news, nor even saying goodbye. They often thought he was dead, sometimes that they'd been abandoned. They had no idea that his long silence was aimed at protecting them. Now I could better understand why my father didn't really like talking about the past. And I realized how fortunate I had been to have a dad, a dad who was there.
The book, the culmination of many years of work, came out in France in 2009. In the meantime I had returned to my work as an actress and scriptwriter. My father and I were happy and excited to see the book published, yet we were gradually overcome with a feeling of melancholy. For us, moving on from such a marvelous venture was like having to say goodbye. It was painful. We had become accustomed to our little rituals, had shared our secrets over the past few years … And what was going to happen now?
I didn't know then, but a new story was about to begin, a story as rich and beautiful as the previous one. The book had a tremendous reception, which took us by surprise. It sold very quickly in the bookstores, and we were very much in demand with the press. There were laudatory portraits in the national and regional media, appearances on television and radio, reports on the TV news. I was asked to give a video-recorded talk on TEDxParis, which also contributed to the great buzz the book created. There followed one translation into a foreign language after another: Italian, German, Spanish, Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, and now English. We traveled around all those countries, met readers, booksellers, journalists. We haven't stopped spending time together, precious time, and the adventure of the book continues to this day. We regularly go to schools and colleges, where my father speaks. That's what he prefers above all: passing on his knowledge. The first time he addressed a hundred or so pupils of sixteen to seventeen, he was very moved by their empathy and attention at an age when people are often unruly. You could have heard a pin drop in the hall. They were completely absorbed in the story he was telling them, asking astonishingly pertinent questions. On the way home my father said, “Did you see how attentive they were? I'd never have thought young kids could be interested in an old dinosaur like me.” I pointed out to him that those “kids” were exactly the same age as he'd been when he joined the Resistance, which made it all the more easy for them to identify with him.
During book signings and meetings with readers quite a few people came along with old forged papers that had belonged to their parents or grandparents to see if, by chance, they happened to have been made by my father. These people confided in us, hoping to discover some chapters of their own family history through ours. We listened to so many stories, met so many remarkable people, that there would be no point in even trying to go into them all here. Among the questions I was repeatedly asked, I have chosen one directly concerning the process of writing which I would like to answer here: Why is the book written in the first person, as if my father were relating his own story, while I wrote it myself? In fact I started the manuscript in the third person and in the past tense. But, after having developed several chapters, I got stuck in the narrative, incapable of continuing. It wasn't the well-known “writer's block,” since I knew exactly what I wanted to write. I was paralyzed. For months on end, with no idea why, the very thought of sitting down at my computer made me feel ill. I decided to take a break and devote myself to other activities. The weeks passed, and I still couldn't find a solution to my problem; I was starting to have serious doubts about my ability to complete the project. That is, until the day I realized that talking about my father in the past tense was as good as writing his obituary in advance. So while he was there in front of me, very much alive, replying to my questions, I had the feeling I was pushing him into his grave. I had a revelation: I had to let him speak! I deleted all my work and started from the beginning again, using the first person, giving him a voice.
On October 1, 2015 my father turned ninety. His life today, together with my mother, is a world away from the torments he suffered during his years underground. He's happy to be a husband, a father and a grandfather. And particularly active for his age … For since the publication of the book he's started out on a new career. I've already mentioned the personal sacrifices he had to make. There is one that I've omitted. Refusing payment from the resistance networks that he served throughout his life, he made his living as a photographer in various fields: postcards, advertising photos, but also photo reportage on industry (the coal mines of the North, the French sugar refineries …). He took numerous photographs of works of art for exhibition catalogues and posters as well. And he was the regular photographer for the painters who were the precursors of kinetic art such as Antonio Asis, Jésus Soto, Carmelo Ardenquin, Yacov Agam … As a specialist for giant-format photography he produced photos for film sets for Trauner, the designer for Marcel Carné, René Clair…
Alongside this work he continued to take, for his own satisfaction, thousands of artistic photographs in the hope of exhibiting them one day. He developed the rolls of film and stored them in shoe boxes that he piled up on top of each other, without ever printing out the photos, because he had neither the time nor the financial means, so that no one has ever seen his work. Thousands of negatives hidden in boxes, what a waste! There are irreparable sacrifices, but this was not one of them, and it was perhaps not too late to start out on a career as a young photographer, even though he was over eighty. He finally decided to print his photos and unveil his artistic work with, as his favorite subject, a view of the world in chiaroscuro where the protagonists are workers, secret lovers, dealers in secondhand goods, real or pretend models, dislocated dolls, bearded hobos … From the flea market of Saint-Ouen to the neon lights of Pigalle, he has captured the looks, the solitary silhouettes, the lights, the elegance and the fringes, everything that goes to make up his universe. With the support of friends we have arranged several exhibitions at cultural organizations and Parisian galleries. His unpublished photos have had a great success. It was extremely moving to see him talking about his photos with other photographers, recognized by his equals (of which he was the doyen, of course).
Today my son is twelve. When I was his age, while my friends’ dads were reading them Grimm's fairy tales to get them to sleep, my father was telling me stories about very ordinary heroes. These unassuming heroes had such a strong belief in their ideals that they managed to realize them when it seemed impossible. These heroes had no army behind them. In general they were just a handful of men and women of conviction and courage. At the time I didn't know that it was his own story my father was telling me. I did, however, understand what he was trying to pass on to me through these part-metaphorical, part-biographical “stories.” They are the stories that I tell my son today to help him always believe in his dreams.
Excerpted from Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life by Sarah Kaminsky and Adolfo Kaminsky. Copyright 2016 by Sarah Kaminsky and Adolfo Kaminsky. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, DoppelHouse Press.
Sarah Kaminsky is a French actor, screenwriter, and author. She was three years old when she immigrated to France with her father, Adolfo, who is of Russian Jewish origins, carrying an Argentinean passport, and with her mother, Leïla, a Tuareg Algerian. Sarah Kaminsky is currently employed as a screenwriter at several production companies in France. She lives in Paris.