On Holocaust Memorial Day, Point of No Return is republishing part of this post (translated from one by Veronique Chemla) about Alfred Nakache, the Algerian-born champion swimmer living in wartime France. He survived Auschwitz, lost his family, but then went on to a glittering postwar swimming career. Hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews born in Arab countries but resident in France were deported to their deaths. They are included in the tally of 70, 000 Jews resident in France who were murdered by the Nazis.
Alfred Nakache was born in 1915 into a large Jewish family in Constantine (Kabylia, Algeria).
The Nakache family arrived from Iraq in the nineteenth century to settle in this
exceptional site overlooking a river, the Rhummel.
Around the age of ten, he manages to overcome his fear of water. Indeed he takes to water like a duck.
Spotted for his physical stamina, Nacache is trained in the Olympic
pool by two Frenchmen doing their military service in Constantine. After they leave Alfred Nakache continues training himself, hence his unorthodox approach. (He is disqualifed in one race for straying out of his lane.)
He takes part in local galas, and moving to
Paris to attend the prestigious Lycee Janson de Sailly, in 1935 becomes
100 m French champion.
Alfred Nakache teaches swimming to young Parisians.
In 1936, after some hesitation, the Popular Front government decides to
send a delegation to the Olympic Games in Berlin in Nazi Germany. Nacache’s team comes fourth, ahead of Germany.
In 1937, Alfred Nakache does his military service in a battalion of top athletes and continues to win medals for France.
He marries a sporty childhood friend, Paula Elbaz in Paris, and together with his brothers joins the French army in 1939.
Under the Vichy regime, Jews are deprived of French nationality, and Nacache is forbidden from exercising his profession, etc.
Fleeing Paris, he takes refuge in January 1941 in the free zone, in Toulouse, where he joined the prestigious club of the TOEC Dolphins.
Alfred Nakache and Paula make a living by running a gym in rue Paul-Féral.
In 1941, his career is at its height. He
breaks records in France and Europe, and completes the world’s 200
butterfly breaststroke race in 2’36 ”.
It it in his hometown that his daughter Annie is born.
Anti-Semitic persecution intensifies. On 26 August 1942, 900 Jews are rounded up in Toulouse.
While some press welcomes the records broken by Alfred Nakache,
others call for his exclusion from national competitions because of
his Jewishness. In Algiers spectators hurl insults. Alfred Nakache cannot compete there.
Under German pressure, the French Swimming Federation (FFN) ban Alfred
Nakache from participating in the 1943 championships in France.
According to his brother Robert, Alfred Nakache seeks refuge in Spain with his wife and their daughter.
But Annie cries so much that the couple return to Toulouse for
fear of endangering the group they had joined on this journey.
On December 20, 1943, Nakache is heckled at his home and his apartment plundered. Entrusted to a municipal institution, little Annie is arrested by the Gestapo.
A man who claims to be his friend denounces
Nacache. He and his family are deported to Auschwitz on 20 January 1944.
Paula and Annie are gassed. Alfred Nakache is brought to Auschwitz labor camp III and then to the camp hospital. He befriends “Young” Perez, born in Tunisia in 1911, and Noah Klieger. Deported from France, “Young” Perez is the youngest world champion in the flyweight boxing category in 1931.
To humiliate Nacache the Nazis force him to retrieve objects from dirty water.
the Allies advance, he is forced on death marches. “Young” Perez dies on one such march.
Alfred Nakache reaches Buchenwald. This camp is liberated on 11 April 1945. Nakache arrives in Paris on 28 April 1945.
Shattered by the news of the murder of his wife and daughter, helped by
his friends and his trainer Alban Minville, Alfred Nakache gradually
resumes his training and teaches physical education.