Inspiration, heartbreak, seemingly insurmountable odds – these are all common in the stories of the post-WWII Olympic Games. The story of swimmer Alfred Nakache, however, may be the most extraordinary. Although he did not medal, he remains one of two known concentration camp survivors to compete.
Nakache was at the height of his swimming career when his right to compete as a French Olympian was taken away by the occupying German forces. Throughout the events that followed, he displayed incredible emotional resolve and physical endurance.
His Early Years
Alfred Nakache was born November 18, 1915, in Constantine, French Algeria, to a traditionalist Jewish family. He overcame a deep fear of water by swimming at a local club, where he saw a rapid progression of his swimming skills.
He first competed on the national stage at age 17. In 1935, he scored the first of a long string of Champion of France titles. He quickly became the face of hope for French swimming and for the French people.
Swimming Against the Tides of History
At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Nakache earned 4th place in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay; his team finished ahead of their German rivals, but fell short of a medal.
In 1941, he set a world record for the 200-meter breaststroke in Marseilles, taking the mantle from a German swimmer.
As a Jew, Nakache faced discrimination in France during these years. He was restricted from entering swimming races by the occupying German authorities, despite the best efforts of his teammates and fellow swimmers who withdrew in protest. Georges Drigny, president of the French Swimming Federation, also offered public support.
Prior to World War II, Alfred Nakache scored an string of Champion of France titles. But the Occupying German Forces banned the Jewish swimmer from competition before sending him and his family to Auschwitz. He went on to become one of only two Nazi concentration camp survivors known to have competed in the 1948 London Olympics. Today, May 4, is Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The War Years
Nakache and his wife - Paola, also a competitive swimmer – and their two-year old daughter, Annie, were arrested and sent to Auschwitz in January 1944. After the emotional highs of his swimming career, Nakache was now experiencing previously unfathomable lows.
At Auschwitz, Alfred was separated from his family. He was forced to swim in the camp’s frigid, brackish water-retention basins for the Nazis’ entertainment. Although weak and emaciated, he swam well and endured the torture as if it didn’t bother him.
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