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 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Alfred Nakache and Ben Helfgott have very little in common.
But they share a distinction which is as remarkable as it is inspiring.
Not only 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 Olympics.
Nakache and his teammates came tantalizingly close to winning a medal in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay, finishing the final in fourth.
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 1940.
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 tanks.
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 torment.
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 1946.
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.
Born in 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 Ravensbruck.
Ben was then sent to a sub-camp in Schlieben where hand-held anti-tank weapons were produced.
He would never see his father again.
Five months as a slave laborer would follow before he was deported to Thereisenstadt three weeks before liberation by the Russian army.
Ben was finally liberated in Thereisenstadt in Czechoslovakia in May 1945.
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 1960.
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 community.
“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 day.”
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