March-April 2018

How One Stain Removal Specialist Saved Thousands of Lives

In Recognition of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2018
By John Paul Roggenkamp

In 1925, Adolfo Kaminsky was born to a Russian Jewish family who lived briefly in Paris, France, before traveling on to Argentina. He moved back to the City of Lights at the age of seven years, in 1932. Being able to return to France with the help of an Argentinian passport gave Kaminsky an appreciation for the importance of ‘papers’ at a young age. At the age of 13 years, he dropped out of school in order to help support his family, becoming an apprentice at a clothes dying establishment – which, today, we would likely call a drycleaning business.

Fortunately for the tens of thousands of people whose lives he saved and whom he helped escape from persecution, he studied his employer’s chemistry textbooks and performed experiments while away from work. “My boss was a chemical engineer, and would answer all of my questions,” Kaminsky said. On the weekends, he picked up shifts at a local dairy, working with a chemist employed there, receiving butter as payment for his labors. At the clothes dyer’s shop, he learned how to get supposedly insoluble ink-blots out of clothing. (Ink stains were a common phenomenon in the first part of the 20th Century, when fountain pens and jars of ink were the most reliable and permanent writing implements.)

After France fell to the Nazis, the Kaminsky family was marked for deportation and sent to the Drancy internment camps outside Paris. They were saved on December 22, 1943, from shipment to death camps by the intervention of the Argentine consul. The family remained at Drancy for three months, however, suffering greatly. During their incarceration, teachers and friends were being disappeared without warning, night and day, never to be seen again.

After being released from Drancy and on a mission to pick up fake papers that would, he hoped, allow his family to flee Nazi-occupied territory, Kaminsky suggested that a group of resistance fighters use lactic acid to remove Waterman blue ink, a trick he had picked up from the dairy chemist. Plus, he indicated he could forge Nazi watermarks on fake identification papers. Doubting his claims, the rebels challenged him, only to be astonished when he made supposedly permanent ink formulas vanish completely. So impressed were the members of the resistance cell that they asked him to join their ranks. Kaminsky ran into trouble, however, when neither desperate ingenuity nor chemical expertise could not remove large, red ‘Jew’ marks stamped onto the passports of individuals slated for deportation to the death camps further east. (Here, Kaminsky was thwarted by the chemical compounds of a special red ink developed by clever and efficient mass murderers.) Instead, he started producing his own passports, making them appear old by treating them with a special dust as well as other methods. (Here, Kaminsky used special chemicals of his own to thwart Third Reich oppressors.) “There were never any problems with my papers,” he said, stating further that the fakes he produced were all but identical to those coming from government printing offices.

Kaminsky and the other resistance fighters would first gather information from spies and informants about who was to be carted off to Auschwitz or Birkenau, and then focus on crafting forged papers for the most vulnerable Jews in northern France: children scheduled to be rounded up and collected at Drancy. According to Pamela Druckerman in the New York Times Sunday Review from October 2, 2016, “Historians estimate that France’s Jewish resistance networks together saved 7,000 to 10,000 children.” If they could not be smuggled into Spain or Switzerland, Jewish children saved from deportation were hidden away behind the walls of monasteries and nunneries or in rural villages. During one marathon session, Kaminsky forced himself to stay awake for days on end, knowing that each moment of rest would cost lives. “It’s a simple calculation: In one hour I can make 30 blank documents; if I sleep for an hour, 30 people will die.” His work finally finished, he collapsed from exhaustion. Many children, however, were saved.

Certain drycleaning methods were also adopted by the U.S. armed forces during World War II, especially in the cleaning of bandages and linens by field-hospital workers laboring far from resupply lines. Drycleaning allowed them to preserve scarce water resources and sterilize bandages quickly, in situ, thus boosting recovery rates for injured G.I.s.

After the fall of Nazi German in 1945, Kaminsky used his skills to support independence movements across the world, from Africa to South America. “All I wanted was to end persecution and enable everyone to live in freedom,” he explained. To think that training in the garment care industry was crucial to Adolfo Kaminsky saving lives – and make the world a more free and happy place – should bring a smile to any drycleaner’s face.

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