Portrait of a Young Forger is, as the subtitle says, A true story of adventure and survival in wartime Europe. I remember reading this book in school and for some reason I felt the need to read it again. I tracked down and bought a second-hand copy (it seems to be a pretty rare title), but according to the invoice, which I've been using as a bookmark, this was in late 2007. It wasn't until 2010 that I actually got around to reading it again.
Marian Pretzel was a young Jewish art student living in Lvov, Poland. He talks about being fond of sports, the 'Dror' sports club he was involved with, and his decision to go to art school. But when the Nazi occupation came it quickly destroyed his family and landed him in the Janowska concentration camp.
It was painfully clear to Marian that he would not survive long at Janowska, and he soon made a miraculous escape from the camp. Previously, he and a friend were given the challenge of forging some stamps on an official-looking document; now Marian had to rapidly develop his forging skills to help his survival.
The book chronicles his journeys during the war years with various friends, around Poland, the USSR, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Each trip was backed by a well thought-out and rehearsed cover story, and suitable forged documents bearing all the right stamps.
His escape from Janowska was only one of his many brushes with death. Along the way he lost countless family members and friends who were not so lucky as he was. And although his survival was largely based on resourcefulness, ingenuity, and boldness, on many occasions it came down to pure luck. For instance, on one occasion he and a friend missed their train because they had to collect a boarding pass before embarking; the train became full while they were in the queue so they had to wait until the next day. Meanwhile, the place they were going to was bombed, and most of the inhabitants killed — had they caught the train they intended, they would likely be amongst those dead.
This book really puts things into perspective for someone who lives in London, goes to work every day, and has responsibilities including ironing work shirts and feeding the cat. The thought of not having anything to eat and dodging the Gestapo at every corner is quite a startling one.
Amazingly, through all this Marian manages to keep a clear head and a positive attitude at a time when many around him are paralysed, mesmerised, and stupefied, by fear:
I had lost everything but my life... I made a slow and careful inventory of the qualities I possessed and how they could be instrumental in my survival.
written on 01-Sep-2010
I was googling Marian Pretzel and came across your review of his book. Unfortunately I have some sad news for you as Marian passed away today after a long illness. I was associate producer on a documentary about Marian's story called "Outwitting Hitler". The doco came out about ten years ago ago (was shown in the UK and around the world) and we travelled with Marian to Israel to meet up with his friend and war time companion Janek Fuchs who i am happy to report is well and alive in Israel. Also, as a follow up, someone who watched the doco recognised Marian as having helped him during the war and they had a reunion in Hawaii some years ago.
Marian's story was very inspiring and it is good to know that people are still reading his story.
I just thought I would let you know given your interest in the book.