Words by Bec Nicol
Alfred Nakache’s story is one that leaves you with your jaw dropped and a tear in your eye as you learn what one human can experience in a lifetime. Nakache was a Jewish man from French Algeria and just from a glance at a photo of him, it is obvious he was a swimmer, a tall man with wide shoulders and muscle. He was swimming butterfly before it was even an official stroke. In 1936 Nakache swam in front of Hitler at the 1936 Olympics games in Berlin, in 1941 he set a world record for the 200-metre breaststroke and then in 1944 he was swimming for Nazi entertainment in freezing water tanks at Auschwitz.
Nakache due to his immense talent caused a media storm in the years leading up to his arrival at Auschwitz, as pressure intensified amongst swimming federations over whether he should be holding any record titles at all because of his “Jewishness”. In 1943 he was banned by the French Swimming Federation from swimming in the national championships and shortly after in late 1943 Nakache, his wife and his daughter were arrested and arrived at the Auschwitz in 1944. He was separated from his wife and his daughter upon arrival and sadly never saw them again. During his time at Auschwitz Nakache was forced to swim in ice-cold water tanks as mentioned above, often having to swim to the bottom to fetch keys and stones. It is said that he swam well during these times and acted as though it didn’t bother him, as was typical of his character.
After being moved to another concentration camp, Buchenwald, Nakache was freed by the Allies in 1945, being one of the only 47 survivors at that camp. Less than a year after being liberated Nakache was a part of a French relay team which set a world record and in 1948 he competed in the first post-war Olympic games in London, where he made it to the semi-finals of the 200-metre breaststroke. As far as is known he is believed to have been one of the only two Holocaust survivors to compete at that these games.
Nakache soon after retired from professional swimming and took to swimming every day in the Port of Cerbere in France, he died whilst on one of his daily swims there of a heart attack at the age of 67 in 1983. Alfred Nakache’s life story is one of heartbreak and tragedy but also one that demonstrates an intense love for his chosen sport and how that carried him through his life until his death and even then he was still swimming.
Picture Credits: Yad Vashem