PARIS — It’s 1944, in occupied Paris. Four friends spend their days in a narrow room atop a Left Bank apartment building. The neighbors think they’re painters — a cover story to explain the chemical smell. In fact, the friends are members of a Jewish resistance cell. They’re operating a clandestine laboratory to make false passports for children and families about to be deported to concentration camps. The youngest member of the group, the lab’s technical director, is practically a child himself: Adolfo Kaminsky, age 18.
If you’re doubting whether you’ve done enough with your life, don’t compare yourself to Mr. Kaminsky. By his 19th birthday, he helped save thousands of people’s lives by making false documents to get them into hiding or out of the country. He went on to forge papers for people in practically every major conflict of the mid-20th century.
Now 91, Mr. Kaminsky is a small man with a long white beard and tweed jacket, who shuffles around his neighborhood with a cane. He lives in a modest apartment for people with low incomes, not far from his former laboratory.
When I followed him around with a film crew one day, neighbors kept asking me who he was. I told them he was a hero of World War II, though his story goes on long after that. It remains painfully relevant today when children are being bombed in Syria or boarding shabby boats to escape by sea.
Like most Westerners, I usually ignore their suffering and assume that someone else will step in to help. But Mr. Kaminsky — a poor, hunted teenager — stepped in himself, during the war and then for many different causes afterward. Why did he do it?