ALFRED NAKACHE: The Swimmer of Auschwitz09/24/2019
Today’s story is not just about an international-class swimmer. First of all, it is one of the most remarkable stories of the post-war Olympic swimmers who survived a concentration camp during the Holocaust.
Alfred Nakache, born in Algeria in 1915, was the eleventh child in a Jewish family. Despite his fear of water, Alfred’s parents signed him up for the various swimming courses. At the age of 18 he settled down in Paris where he joined a French national swimming team.
The Berlin Olympic Games
Inspired by the idea of the independence of sports from politics, the Jewish athlete qualified for the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games despite the rising political tension in Germany. At the Berlin Olympics, he comes fourth in the final of the 4x200m (4x200sl), ahead of the German team. Being at the heights of his career between 1941 and 1942, Nakache won the French 100, 200 and 400 freestyle, and set a world record in the 200m breaststroke on 6 July 1941.
However, the political situation has intervened in the flow of his success. With the anti-Semitic prosecution intensified all over Europe, Nakache had to move away from the capital and settle in Toulouse. The following year, despite the national championships moving to Toulouse, he was restricted from entering the races. The situation aggravated in 1943 with the mass deportation of the Jews. Along with his wife Paule and daughter Annie, Alfred was arrested and deported to Auschwitz in January 1944.
Separated from his wife and daughter, Nakache was subjected to forced labour, while Paule and Annie were sent directly to the gas chamber. Assigned a number 172763, he was sent to the infirmary. Given his fame of a swimmer, Nakache was often forced by the German soldiers to jump into the pool to retrieve the items launched by the soldiers. Notwithstanding all the sufferings and tortures, he continued to struggle demonstrating a never-ending fortitude and strength of character as he used to do in the swimming pool.
Towards the end of the war, a year before the Russian troops advanced towards the occupied territories, Nakache – along with other 1368 prisoners – were forced to leave the camp towards Buchenwald with only 47 prisoners of the camp who made it through. After the allied forces liberated Europe, he went back to Toulouse. In the hope to see again his wife and daughter, he kept going in vain to the train station for months.
The Second Life
The history tends to be at times so drastically cruel, imbued with violence and inhumanity but sometimes also manages to give a second chance, and even a second life. Alfred Nikache is the one who got this chance: a little over a year after the liberation, he gets back to training, sets a world record in the 3x100m relay and makes his way to the London Olympic Games swimming in the 200m breaststroke and joining the French water polo team. After the end of his swimming career, he dedicates the rest of his life to coaching thus never retreating from the sports that probably saved his life in Auschwitz. And yet his dedication continues to inspire.