A Witness to Survival

Hannah Sassoon

 
 

Adolfo Kaminsky’s photographs sat in hiding for a half-century, but nothing about the silver gelatin prints would tell you that. In most ways, they belong to a familiar genre: black-and-white street photography, standard candid fare, from late-1940s and early-1950s Paris. Here’s the Seine, there’s a flea market, a puddle on cobblestones, a lone figure in the street. Several possess a Cartier-Bresson poetic aesthetic, like the one of three nuns reading beside the Seine, the curve of their covered heads rhyming with the arches under the Pont Neuf. Others, like the one of napping workers whose shoe soles are almost in tatters, suggest the grain of humanist social documentary. 

Two of the photographs, side by side, make a diptych:

In the first—night. Plastering of sycamore leaves on pavement wet with recent rain. On a bench, two lovers caress. The focus is soft, and a lamppost across the street glows exactly above the lovers’ heads like a  private moon. 

In the second—the same night. Same bench. Same leaves and lamppost. Same composition, the focus sharp, the lovers gone. 

Here a story starts to take shape. One wonders if the lovers ran home in sweet heat and haste. One wonders how they broke each other’s hearts. Wonders whether they noticed Kaminsky, or ever thought of him again. Nothing is overt: outside the visible frame, in the uncounted time between exposures, two lovers have vanished. 

Kaminsky knew that the definition of a disappearance is you don’t see it. By the time he took that pair of photographs, he had all but disappeared himself. It was just after World War II. He was in his early twenties and had no papers, no documented history of employment, no official past. Most of his friends had emigrated or perished. But Kaminsky remained in Paris: he had retreated into a clandestine life—already an enormously influential life—and his success depended on his invisibility. He might be glimpsed wandering the city with a camera, most often shooting deserted streets at night, but he was not really a photographer, and he could not afford to be known. He sleeved his negatives and stored them in boxes, where they remained through his underground decades, and then for a few silent decades more. 

Seventy of Adolfo Kaminsky’s photographs were recently exhibited in the basement gallery at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris. The photographs, as well as the story of his life, attune us to the costs of anonymity. 

***

It is perhaps definitional to street photography that its subjects—a child at the water fountain, a man leaping over a puddle, a row of passengers through trolley windows—remain anonymous. Everything else is precise: the subject’s gesture or expression, the composition of the image, the instant. But anonymity blurs precision; it allows the meaning of the image to dilate in the mind of the viewer. Anonymity made way for Henri Cartier-Bresson’s visual poetry, beyond portraiture or documentary. In Robert Frank’s work, it enlarged the particular to the abstract: all those American faces, without name or identity, became iconographic facets of his social commentary. 

The people Kaminsky photographed after World War II were anonymous to him, and he to them. He didn’t know what or whom they’d lost in the war, only that they were alive now—that they had, like him, survived. 

Among Kaminsky’s pictures, there is a recurrence of solitary men, most with full and wiry beards: the chair caner seated on a low wooden crate, weaving. The organ grinder on a bridge over the Seine. The white-haired bookseller between tables of hardcover stacks, his prickly gaze askance, his four cats in angles of repose. In his own self-portrait from 1948, Kaminsky has no beard. He is twenty-three. He wears thick glasses, a heavy coat, an unlooped scarf. He sits alone on the abandoned railroad tracks that cut through the Fontainebleau forest. Those tracks—particularly at that time, and particularly for Kaminsky—are a haunted allusion. 

***

By the start of the Second World War, Kaminsky’s family had already been exiled several times over. His Russian-Jewish parents had fled the pogroms; in 1917, they were expelled from France due to their involvement with the Jewish Labor Bund. (Kaminsky’s father, Salomon, was a journalist.) Kaminsky was born in 1925 in Argentina, the second of four children. By the time he was seven, the Kaminskys had had to relocate three more times—to Turkey, to Paris, and then to Vire, a small town in Normandy. They had little means, so to help support the family, Kaminsky dropped out of school at age thirteen and began selling hosiery with his uncle. Soon he was hired at a local factory wiring airplane panels. 

In 1940, German tanks rolled into view. The factory closed. It changed hands. It reopened with a ban on employing Jews. Kaminsky, now fourteen, scanned classifieds and became a clothes-dyer’s apprentice. 

Within months, his uncle, under threat of arrest after an altercation with a German officer, fled by rail to Paris. The Gestapo traced him through an intercepted letter. Kaminsky’s mother, informed of the intercepted letter by a policeman in Vire, rode to the city to warn her brother. She reached him, just in time, and he escaped—but she did not return home. The railroad company reported an “accident”: on the tracks between Paris and Vire, they had found her severed body. 

In the following three years, while Kaminsky worked for the clothes-dyer, he became obsessed with dyes and mordants and reducing agents—with chemistry. He pored over textbooks and studied with a local pharmacist. He learned to make soap, which was in short supply. He also assisted a dairy chemist, testing the fat content of butter. He would dissolve methylene blue, an indelible ink, in cream and measure how quickly the lactic acid broke down the color, making it disappear. 

By 1943, Kaminsky and his remaining family were among the last Jews in Vire. In October, they were all arrested. Piled into a van. Transported to the Caen prison, and then to Drancy. The camp had been under Nazi control for several years. Deportations—one thousand prisoners per convoy—ran along a direct rail line from there to Auschwitz. 

The Kaminsky family counted to three: three months, the maximum internment before deportation. But at the end of their time, their Argentine citizenship created some bureaucratic confusion. German-Argentine diplomatic relations were just then being severed. Because of momentary miscommunication—that day, that very hour—about whether Argentines were exempt, the Kaminskys were not deported. They were set free. 

The rarity is unthinkable—the convergence of circumstances a decisive moment, a split-second opening of an aperture through which this one family escaped. They separated immediately and went into hiding. Kaminsky, who had become so thin he had difficulty standing up, made his way to Paris. 

Among the memories of Drancy that would torment Kaminsky, one particular face persisted. He had become friendly with an elderly couple; the man kept a well-trimmed beard. Just before the couple was to be deported, the man was shaved completely. And Kaminsky glimpsed his face one last time: this man stripped of everything, all dignity. The beards in Kaminsky’s photographs offer a silent elegy.

***

After his release from Drancy, Kaminsky needed false papers as a measure of protection. He found a contact in the Paris underground network. During their rendezvous, they strolled innocuously around the Collège de France, and Kaminsky was interviewed so that a plausible new identity could be created for him. The interviewer quickly gathered that Kaminsky’s knowledge of dyes and chemistry could make him invaluable to the resistance. Here was an eighteen-year-old who knew how to dissolve indelible methylene blue ink—something no one had thought possible. He was recruited immediately. 

Kaminsky had a steady, precise hand, and soon he was filling out blank identity cards and un-stamping papers with chemical solutions. He replicated letterheads. He analyzed and reproduced watermarks. So began Kaminsky’s life as a professional forger: clandestine master of dyes and paper, of erasure, of binding, of stamps and fonts and handwriting. During the rest of the war, he hardly left the secret lab where, day and night, he fabricated documents for those in need of concealment, or in danger of deportation. 

It is exacting work, this kind of forgery. On every detail hangs the fate of a person. No margin for the slightest slip or lapse. Add to this the urgency of crisis—that which makes people need forged documents in the first place—and you end up with calculations like this. Three hundred children, three days. In one hour I can make thirty blank documents. Each document must then be colored, filled out by hand and by typewriter, signed, stamped, artificially aged. If I sleep for one hour, thirty people will die. 

How many thousands of faces passed before Kaminsky’s eyes in passport photos, each print a fixed gaze? The people he saved were anonymous to him and, he saw, equal. 

***

After the war, Kaminsky remained in hiding. The illegality of what he had done, and the scale, constrained him to a life of paranoid caution. He kept a false name and often changed his address, and whenever he went out, he would circle the block several times before reentering his building to ensure he wasn’t being followed. 

With his bellows camera, he frequented the Paris flea markets. Photography, that medium of silent witness, offered an escape from loneliness. Kaminsky’s gaze kept returning to jumbled displays of second-hand items—fragments of unknowable lives, now for sale. Most of his flea-market photographs are peopled by mannequins, icons of anonymity. As if anonymity itself had become his subject, not just an intrinsic aspect of the genre. 

One picture shows the market at Clignancourt in 1955, where a dozen female mannequins, including two children, stand in front of a small monument to the French Revolution. They seem, at first, to comprise part of the monument—the gray of their plastic and the gray of its stone are of similar values in the exposure—but something about their nudity and near uniformity chills the viewer. Their eyelessness, too. The pose of the two child mannequins makes them seem as if they are about to start running—but is it toward us in a friendly greeting, or away from something else, their hands starting to flail, bodies naked, faces blind? It is hard not to see these plastic figures as so many anonymous women, rounded up, stripped, perhaps about to be gassed. Another of Kaminsky’s flea-market pictures shows a row of dolls laid along a table—naked, dislocated, heads lolling back—like tiny corpses.

Flea market, Clignancourt, 1955.

***

Henri Cartier-Bresson was among those arrested during the war. For thirty-five months he was held at a prisoner-of-war camp; it took him three attempts to escape. When he did, in 1943, he went into hiding on a farm, then traveled to Vosges, to the spot where, before his imprisonment, he had buried his Leica. He unearthed it. And it was just as he had left it—as if no time had passed between one frame and the next. 

The reason he had been able to leave the farm, to recoup his camera, and then to move freely about France was, of course, forged papers, obtained through the resistance network. If this were a novel, those papers would have been made by Kaminsky’s hand. But this is real history, its serendipities unstaged and decisive. Chance offset these two men. They both lived. 

***

Kaminsky’s underground work did not end with the war. Through the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s he continued forging papers in astonishing volume. How could he stop? Wars proliferated. Uncounted millions were disappearing. Underground resistance networks branched like capillaries all around the world. Kaminsky’s papers circulated to Algeria during the War of Independence. To Franco’s Spain. To Salazar’s Portugal. To Portuguese Guinea and Angola. To South Africa. To Argentina, Chile, Venezuela, Peru, Uruguay, Brazil, Colombia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Saint-Domingue, and Haiti. To Greece during the military junta. To the U.S., where he helped deserters who didn’t want to fight in the Vietnam War. 

The papers Kaminsky made weren’t just physical documents—they were small fictions. Often Kaminsky invented life stories: people’s names, occupations, and birth places. In a way, these acts of creation were also acts of erasure. With his forgeries, Kaminsky could disappear a real identity in order to save a person. His work had to disappear, too, the traces of his hand to go unnoticed. Kaminsky was a successful forger precisely because no one could detect his craft, even when they stared directly at it. 

One recalls his diptych of photographs: the clever disappearance, the empty bench. If in the first exposure he captured the lovers, perhaps in the second exposure, he set them free. 

Kaminsky never accepted payment for his forgeries. He did not want to become a mercenary. The stakes were too high. He lived in scarcity in Paris, supporting himself with a bare minimum of side jobs, such as commercial photography and large-format printing, which also served as cover.

There were other costs to Kaminsky’s decades underground. He came to see, and to say, “There is nothing more porous than borders.” But his role in so many thousands of border crossings depended on hermetic secrecy, its own impenetrable wall. Behind this wall Kaminsky had to disappear himself, even in his closest relationships. The imperatives of his work—secrecy, exactitude, unrelenting urgency—entailed immense personal sacrifices. He did not escape from hurting those nearest to him. Every one of his romantic relationships disintegrated in those years, perpetually secondary to his forgeries. It was a simple and sober calculation, to weigh the singular face of someone he loved against the piles of anonymous passport faces before him—all lives being equal. 

Extended exposure to chemicals blackened Kaminsky’s once-green eyes, and the right one, from the strain of staring through microscope and magnifying glass, eventually lolled outward, blind.

If we consider Kaminsky a hero now—as opposed to, say, a criminal, which is how he might have been treated had he been caught, or how a forger like him might be handled today—it’s because we see, in retrospect, the commitment he made to his silent work and the existential consequences of that work. 

“When you have the chance to save even one human life, you must,” Kaminsky, now 94, said in a recent interview. “It’s elemental.”

***

Kaminsky stopped his forgeries in 1971. Movements on the extreme left were radicalizing and growing increasingly violent, and he refused to aid any cause that perpetrated violence. He could also sense the channels closing: his work was being traced. He gave away his tools and left Paris. For the first time in his life, he was free. 

He married. He had three children. He kept his secrets. It was another twenty-five years before his youngest daughter, Sarah, began asking questions. Together they opened his boxes of negatives. For the first time, he began to tell his stories, and Sarah began to write a book about his life. The biography, Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life, has one conceit: it’s in the first person. Not direct quotation, not his words exactly. It’s his daughter’s very convincing forgery of his voice. 

But the biography says little about Kaminsky’s photographs—those still moments of witness. The sensational story of his career has made his street photography seem an afterthought. But the images are an intimate and haunting record of how Kaminsky saw, of who and what captured his eye when he looked up from his work as a forger. They’re a vision of the world—of the humanity that survives.

In one of his photographs, we are looking down at the Seine. Two men in a small boat tend a fishing line dropped in the water. Above them on the cobbled bank three men stand watching. We see them from behind, only their anonymous backs and the crowns of their heads. There is no horizon, only river all the way to the top of the frame, smooth enough to reflect the mackerel sky. For a moment it looks as though instead of gazing down we’re gazing up. To look at this photograph is to see Kaminsky seeing these lives below, or beyond. Eternal afternoon of catch and release. The fishing line disappears into the clouds.

Click here for a portfolio of the work of Adolfo Kaminsky.


Hannah Sassoon is a writer living in New York.

Image: Bench, Paris, 1948. Courtesy Adolfo Kaminsky and the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme, 1945–55.