Sinai Says: Tales of Jewish athletic perseverance
Alfred Nakache and Ben Helfgott have very little in common, but they share a remarkable, inspiring distinction.
BEN HELFGOTT Photo: Courtesy
Alfred Nakache and Ben Helfgott have very little in common.
share a distinction which is as remarkable as it is inspiring.
did they both endure the horrors of the Holocaust, but they went on to become
the only two Jewish Olympians known to have competed in the Games after
surviving a concentration camp.
Born on November 18, 1915, in
Constantine, French Algeria, Nakache became one of France’s leading swimmers in
the 1930’s, representing the Tricolor in the 1936 Berlin
Nakache and his teammates came tantalizingly close to winning a
medal in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, finishing the final in
In 1938, he won a silver medal at the European Championships as a
member of the 4x200m free relay and he continued to flourish even after the
Nazis occupied France in June 1940, defeating German champion Joachim Balke and
setting a world 200-meter breaststroke record (2:36.8m) in Marseilles in 1941
while it was still part of the Free Zone.
Nakache was granted special
permission to represent France by Marshal Pétain’s regime, which turned Jews
into second-class citizens with the anti-Semitic legislation passed in October
However, the swimmer remained the target of anti-Semitic attacks in
the newspapers, and the Committee for General and Sporting Education banned him
from taking part in the 1943 French championships.
Matters got far worse
the following year, with Nakache and his wife Paule, and daughter Annie, being
deported to Auschwitz in January 1944.
Of the 1,368 men, women and
children in their convoy, only 47 survived.
His wife and daughter were
murdered immediately upon arrival.
Nakache was placed in the Auschwitz
III Monowitz camp and amazingly continued to swim in the camp’s water
He did so in the hope of maintaining human dignity, but his
swimming prowess was also used by an SS guard as an extra method of
Less than a year after being liberated, Nakache swam on the
French 3x100m relay team that established a world record of 3:19.9m in August
Nakache, who between 1936-1946 won the French 100-meter freestyle
title six times as well as the 200m freestyle and the 200m breaststroke gold
medals four times each, was back competing in the Olympics in the 1948 London
Games as a member of France’s swim and water polo teams.
He advanced to
the semifinals of the 200-meter breaststroke and finished sixth with the French
water polo team.
The “Swimmer of Auschwitz” passed away in 1983, but his
story will live forever.
As will that of Ben Helfgott.
Pabianice, Poland, in 1929, Helfgott was almost 10 years old when his life
changed forever with the Nazi invasion of Poland.
After three years with
his family in the Piotrkow ghetto, the first ghetto in Poland, the deportations
to Treblinka began.
Helfgott initially avoided deportation because of his
work in the glass factory before his father arranged forged papers that would
allow the family to be among the 2,500 Jews not to be sent to Treblinka of the
24,500 which had populated the ghetto.
Nevertheless, his mother and
8-yearold sister, Lusia, were murdered in the Rakow forest in December 1942, and
just six weeks before his hometown was liberated in November 1944, Helfgott and
his father were deported to Buchenwald while his surviving sister was sent to
Ben was then sent to a sub-camp in Schlieben where hand-held
anti-tank weapons were produced.
He would never see his father
Five months as a slave laborer would follow before he was deported
to Thereisenstadt three weeks before liberation by the Russian army.
was finally liberated in Thereisenstadt in Czechoslovakia in May
His father had been shot dead a few days earlier as he tried to
escape from a death march.
Helfgott would eventually learn that his
sister Mala survived Bergen-Belsen and had been sent to Sweden, while he was one
of the 732 orphans under the age of 16 offered a temporary home by Britain, a
group which became known as “The Boys”.
The siblings would be reunited in
London in 1947.
Helfgott ended the war barely able to walk, weighing less
than 40 kilograms, but he went on to represent Great Britain in the
weightlifting competitions in the Olympic Games of Melbourne 1956 and Rome
As an 18-year-old in 1948 he coincidentally came across some
weightlifters doing exercises and fell in love with the sport, also winning a
bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff in 1958 and taking gold medals at
the 1950, 1953, and 1957 Maccabiah Games.
Helfgott, a grandfather of
nine, helped launch the ’45 Aid Society for Holocaust Survivors in 1963, of
which he remains the chairman until this day, and is also president of the
Holocaust Memorial Day Trust and of the Yad Vashem Committee of the Board of
Deputies of British Jews.
He was awarded an MBE for services to the
“I was the only survivor competing in 1956 but I believe there
would have been many more Jewish competitors if so many young lives had not been
cut short by the Nazis,” Helfgott recently said.
“No child should have to
go through what I went through. I have lived a full life in many directions, but
this is something I will never forget. It haunts me every
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