The Avid Reader: Nothing like a good forgery story

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 11/5/2020 12:01:32 PM
Modified: 11/5/2020 12:01:20 PM

There is nothing like a good forgery story to get the blood pumping and the imagination working. Most of the time when we think of forgery, we think of either fake paintings or phony money. That is the purpose of forgery – fool someone into believing they have the real thing, which is usually a big-ticket item. Naturally, we all abhor practices such as this; but what if there was a situation when forgery was a very good thing?

The novel, “The Book of Lost Names” by Kristin Harmel is about good forgery. Hamel begins her story in May, 2005, with Eva Traube Abrams. Eva, in her 80’s and a semi-retired librarian living in Florida, sees a photo in a magazine. It is of a book she has not laid eyes on for sixty-five years. The article with the picture explains that a librarian in Berlin, Germany, is trying to reunite the book with the people it was taken from by the looting Nazis during World War II. This valuable, and rare religious text was thought to have been stolen from someplace in France. While examining the book, the Berlin librarian found a code written throughout the text. He is anxious to find the real owner and hopefully, solve the mystery of the code as well.

This jolt of seeing this particular book triggers amazing memories for Eva. Memories that she has never shared with anyone in her life here in America – even her husband (now deceased), and son.

The story then ricochets back to the beginning of WWII in Paris, where Eva was a graduate student. Her farther, a Polish Jew, was arrested and sent to a concentration camp with thousands of others. Eva and her mother flee Paris and wind up in a small mountain town in the Free Zone. But the so-called Free Zone is neither free, nor safe. Rather, it is filled with collaborators and traitors. To survive, Eva had to forge her own documents, which after being altered, attest to her not being Jewish. It is at that point she becomes involved with the Resistance and begins forging identity papers for Jewish children who are being helped to escape to Switzerland.

Worrying that these little ones will not remember who they really are, Eva devises a code with the help of a fellow forger named Remy. They write this code in a rare religious text they find on the shelves of the church, giving the child’s real name along with the name she and Remy have given them.

Eventually, and inevitably, Eva and Remy fall in love, but he is betrayed and reportedly murdered by the Nazis. Eva survives, marries, eventually moves to the United States. She begins a new life, never telling of her years as a successful forger during the war.

The drama, heart-pounding suspense, and fear of discovery make this story a real page-turner. I loved the way Hamel developed her characters, crafted the plot, and, to confess, I cried while reading the last chapter. Don’t let that turn you off, because you will celebrate this book of survival just as I did.

Novelists get their ideas in many places, and Hamel notes in her book that the two most compelling, inspiring, real accounts of World War II forgery and saving those hunted by the Nazis are: “A Good Place to Hide: How One French Community Saved Thousands of Lives During World War II” by Peter Grose, and “Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life” by Sarah Kaminsky. Of course, I had to read these books too.

Kaminsky’s recounting of her father’s real-life forgery career, spanning over 30-plus years, is really the stuff to inspire fiction. Adolfo was a young teenager when the Germans invaded France. As a Jewish person living if France, but born in Argentina, and therefore, carrying an Argentine birth certificate, he was somewhat safe during the early part of the war. But, after Argentina abandoned her Jewish citizens to the Germans, Adolfo was on the run.

Adolfo, however, had experience as a dyer, and he was knowledgeable not just about putting color into materials, but also figured out how to remove it. He is the man who discovered how to bleach out Waterman blue ink from official documents. This ink was used on these documents because it was supposedly impervious to alteration. Ha! Once the documents were bleached, he was able to fill in altered and safe information that would eventually save thousands of lives.

This made him extremely valuable to the French Resistance, and he was recruited quickly. Adolfo covered his tracks by becoming a photographer – thus giving a reason for all the chemicals and moving around Paris with a camera. Perfect cover.

Kaminsky, Adolfo’s daughter and author of this story, treats us to not only the perilous life her father led as the master forger of WWII, but all the subsequent events in which he was involved. After the war, Adolfo was the forger for the French Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the only constitutionally legal party in Algeria from 1962 to 1989. He also forged amazingly perfect documents for thousands of freedom fighters, political refugees, and others who would have died at the hands of corrupt governments all over Europe, North Africa, and even the Middle East. This long-spanning career of forgery, saving those who were hunted, is the primary reason Adolfo didn’t agree to tell his story until he was well into his 80’s. And what an amazing life it was.

Many who were hunted needed documents, but having a place to hide was critical as well, because frequently Jewish people trying to flee from the Nazis were denied entrance into other “safe” countries. Thus, there was no choice but to get forged documents and hide in France.

The location for Grose’s book was an isolated town in the upper Loire Valley. This is Huguenot territory, and these people knew what it was to be persecuted. They lived by the Bible, and their interpretation was to welcome, give shelter, feed, and secrete 3,500 people of the Jewish faith who had no place to go. And to keep absolutely quiet about the whole thing.

Examples in this marvelously written documentary include the local Protestant minister, a pacifist, who teamed up with a Jewish boy from southern France, and together they forged over 5,000 sets of false identity papers. Thee papers, combined with those of other forgers (see Kaminsky above) saved other Jews and French Resistance fighters.

The power of this story can overwhelm a reader, because of the amount of collaboration required by an entire community to pull this off. Not just for a few weeks, but for the entirety of World War II. I so admired these wonderful, kind, and honest people who were able to resist Nazi tyranny every single day.

What little we read on WWII in history class cannot come close to the reality written in these last two books. Hamel set the stage with her characters who were largely based on the real, brave people in Kaminsky’s and Grose’s work. Together, all three paint a picture of courage, intelligence, and perseverance in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. I cried, laughed, and felt such joy with their victory over tyranny.


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