From a world record to Auschwitz: The remarkable story of swimmer Nakache

By Antonio Torres del Cerro

Paris, May 2 (EFE).- Fresh light has been shone on the remarkable story of Alfred Nakache, who set the 200-meter butterfly world record in 1941 and competed at the 1948 Olympics after surviving Auschwitz, where his wife and two-year-old daughter were murdered, thanks to a new book by author Renaud Leblond.

Leblond, whose Le Nageur d’Auschwitz (lit: “The swimmer of Auschwitz”) is due for release on May 5, describes Nakache as an “extraordinary man who had to swim even in hell.”

Nakache overcame his fear of water as a child, and mastered the art of swimming in his native Algeria, which at the time was a French colony. He posted a new world record in the middle of the Nazi occupation of France in 1941.

“A man who swam to hell, who was a victim of anti-Semitic persecution, and who is an example of incredible resistance in returning to his club,” Leblond tells Efe at the gates of a Paris public swimming pool named after Nakache.

Nakache, who was Jewish, was practically unknown in France until he was added to the Florida-based International Swimming Hall of Fame in June 2019.

“It was the Americans who made him known in France,” Leblond says.

In 1933, Nakache decided to pursue his dreams, moving from Algeria to Paris, where he alternated his physical education studies with training as a professional swimmer.

Competing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, organized by Germany’s Nazi regime, he came fourth in the 200-meter freestyle relay, just ahead of the German team.

His career then bloomed.

He won seven French championships until World War II broke out in 1939, when he had to flee from Paris to Toulouse, a southern French city that was not yet occupied by the Nazis.

In 1941, as the persecution of Jews in France worsened, Nakache broke the world butterfly record, which withstood for five years. Just two years later, however, he was barred from competition and, at the end of 1943, deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp.

There, he was separated from his wife Paule and daughter Annie, who he would never see again.

The Nazi authorities, aware of Nakache’s physical abilities, put him to work as an assistant at the Auschwitz infirmary.

“The Nazis held him between admiration and contempt,” the Leblond says.

They subjected him to humiliating swimming-related tests, including picking up a dagger from the bottom of a dirty water tank at the camp.

Nakache was later moved to Buchenwald in one of the so-called death marches that saw thousands of prisoners moved as Soviet and Allied forces advanced on a shrinking Nazi regime.

The simmer survived the death camp and later returned to Toulouse.

Although he had lost 30 kilograms during the Holocaust, Nakache qualified for the 1948 London Olympics, aged 33.

Nakache died of a heart attack at the age of 67 while swimming in the southern French port of Cerbere. EFE

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