Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life

Doing some research on youth resistance during WWII, I fortunately stumbled across a name: Adolfo Kaminsky.  His face stared out at me from my screen. Who was he and what did he do during the war, and more importantly how had I never heard of him? I immediately thought about my students, as I always do–how could I engage them with his story?

Adolfo Kaminsky was born in Argentina, to a Jewish family from Russia. In 1932, when he was seven, his family moved to Paris, where his father worked as a tailor. In 1938, the family moved to northwest France to live near his uncle, and Kaminsky worked in a dye shop, where his interest in chemical dyes began. In 1940, after the German invasion of France, his home was taken over by the Nazis and they were forced to move, and a year later, his mother was killed. At this point, at the age of 17, Kaminsky joined the resistance. After being interred in a camp, his family returned to Paris, where Kaminsky went underground to work as a forger, creating identity papers for Jews and others sought by the Nazis.

Focusing on Kaminsky’s heroic work brings up perhaps the most essential question in any classroom:

What can one person do to make a difference? 

“If I hadn’t been able to do anything, I wouldn’t have been able to bear it. My hope for the world? Human beings are all equal. These words can’t be empty. They have to be reality.”

Adolfo Kaminsky: A Forger’s Life written by his daughter, Sarah Kaminsky.

My Father the Forger, a Ted talk by Sarah Kaminsky

Saving Jews During the Holocaust a 2 minute “History Bites” video

 How A WWII Era Forger Saved Lives One Fake Document at a Time 60 minutes story

The Forger Who Saved Thousands of Jews From the Nazis: CBS news story

If I Sleep for an Hour, 30 People Will Die NY Times article

Holocaust Remembrance Day

In September, a novel I wrote called The Pirates of Cologne was published by Levellers Press. It is YA book that is based on the true story of the Edelweiss Pirates, over 5,000 working class German youth, who fought against the Hitler Youth and were part of the organized resistance. Many of the kids were imprisoned, beaten or killed for their involvement, and they were considered war criminals by the German government for sixty years after the war until they were finally recognized in 2005.

Unknown copy

I think of these heroic kids today,  on International Holocaust Remembrance day, and on most days.

On the first page of my novel there is a quote from Elie Wiesel: “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” How do we teach our youth how to recognize injustice and empower them to protest? How do we give them opportunities to develop a voice to speak out, and the skills to learn, research and build strong arguments?

In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, here are some resources about the Holocaust for elementary, middle grade and YA readers.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

information on the Edelweiss Pirates

Middle Grade and YA titles

The Pirates of Cologne  The year is 1942, and thirteen-year-old Sebastian Jaeger has escaped from a Hitler Youth camp and returned to the city of Cologne. Five years earlier, his father, a Communist leader, was imprisoned, leaving Sebastian alone to care for his grandmother. Attracted by the possibility of true friendship, Sebastian joins a group of street kids called the Edelweiss Pirates who make a game out of their rebellion against the Hitler Youth and the Nazis. But their childish antics soon take a more serious and dangerous turn as they begin to work with the organized resistance.

The Book Thief Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s novel is about Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist – books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas When Bruno returns home from school one day, he discovers that his belongings are being packed in crates. His father has received a promotion and the family must move from their home to a new house far far away, where there is no one to play with and nothing to do. A tall fence running alongside stretches as far as the eye can see and cuts him off from the strange people he can see in the distance. But Bruno longs to be an explorer and decides that there must be more to this desolate new place than meets the eye. While exploring his new environment, he meets another boy whose life and circumstances are very different to his own, and their meeting results in a friendship that has devastating consequences.

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl It is 1942 in Holland and the Germans have invaded. All Jewish people are frightened for their lives, so the Frank family hide. Life is dangerous but they hope for the best – until they are finally discovered. Anne Frank was a real person, and this is her diary.

Milkweed He’s a boy who lives in the streets of Warsaw. He’s a boy who steals food for himself and the other orphans. He’s a boy who believes in bread, and mothers, and angels. He’s a boy who wants to be a Nazi some day, with tall shiny jackboots and a gleaming Eagle hat of his own. Until the day that suddenly makes him change his mind. And when the trains come to empty the Jews from the ghetto of the damned, he’s a boy who realizes it’s safest of all to be nobody.


Self-Esteem and Helping Strangers

From NPR, Teen’s Self-Esteem Grows When Volunteering To Help Strangers

“While kids may bristle at the thought of posting fewer selfies, surveys indicate 55 percent of adolescents enjoy volunteering. And according to a recent study, when it comes to helping others, teens may benefit psychologically from spending time helping strangers.”

In the three-year study of 681 youth between the ages 11 and 14, researchers found that youth who assisted strangers reported higher self-esteem a year later. “Questions like “I help people I don’t know, even if it’s not easy for me,” and “I voluntarily help my neighbors,” helped researchers assess the various ways teens support others, while statements like, “I am satisfied with myself,” and “I feel useless at times,” helped the researchers evaluate the teens’ self-esteem.”

How can we incorporate helping strangers into our classroom curriculum? 

How can parents encourage children to commit to community service and helping strangers?

Some recent idea from my Social Studies classroom:

  • Study and support the organization Skateistan. Examine the political and cultural geography of the areas they serve, explore big issues such as equity, the rights of girls, the impacts of poverty
  • Examine food scarcity, watch the film A Place at the Table, and work with the local food bank to raise money, food or help at the facility
  • A unit on the issue of child labor globally with the reading of two texts Iqbal and Free the Children
  • An exploration into global terrorism and the way it impacts girls’ education by reading the young readers version of I Am Malala. Have students use their knowledge to educate others through writing editorials, creating bulletin boards, working with other classrooms, etc.
  • Create a Day of Service where the entire school-wide community helps local organizations and neighbors. Have students and faculty brainstorm things they can do in their local community to reach out and foster connections.