Every Saturday with RetroNews, the press site of the BNF, return on an episode in the history of sport as told by the French press. Today, Alfred Nakache, "Swimmer of Auschwitz", who, Saturday, May 18, was inducted into the Hall of Fame of World Swimming.
Undiscovered champion of French swimming with dramatic fate, Alfred Nakache was born in Constantine, Algeria, in November 1915. Cadet of a Jewish family of eleven children, it is to overcome a phobia of the water he frequents at first the basins Constantinois. His progress was rapid: at age 17, in 1933, he participated in his first championships in France, then moved to Paris in the wake to devote himself entirely to swimming. From 1935, he won the gold medal at the French championships in 100 meters freestyle.
We find his trace in the newspapers of 1936: selected in France swimming team, he participated in the Olympics in Berlin, in a special context for Jewish athletes taking part in these Games Nazis. With the relay team 4×200 meters, then holder of the record of Europe of the distance, he finishes fourth. During the elimination phase, the Paris-Soir of August 11 greeted the "Triumph, if not in time, at least in style" tricolor swimmers: "What a beautiful departure from Nakache, what perseverance from Tailli, Cavallero and Taris!" In France, finishing ahead of Germany, fifth, is already a victory, as the historian Jean-Paul Derai tells the site of the National Museum of Sport.
A rivalry with Jacques Cartonnet
After the Games, "Artem" (his nickname), already a reference in freestyle, decides to get into the breaststroke. He explains why he defies his compatriot Jacques Cartonnet in Paris-Soir in November 1936. "We shouted at insolence, and fatuity, when I announced my desire to meet Jacques Cartonnet on 100 meters breaststroke. Certainly, I know that adventure is perilous; but I like adventures, and I like it even more, because of the risks it presents. " At the time, Cartonnet was one of the world's best in the 200-meter breaststroke: he twice held the world record of distance between 1933 and 1936. "Jacques Cartonnet is the most beautiful brewer" in the world ", tells Nakache in Paris-Soir. For my part, I'm not interested in aesthetics. I'm more prosaic, and only speed interests me. " Presented as a model of modesty in the press of the time, he nevertheless appears here as an ambitious competitor.
Speed, he will master it, as evidenced by his feats of arms as early as 1938. "Still and always Nakache!" can we read in the Petit Parisien July 18, 1938: the Constantine won three titles at the championships of France, including the 200-meter breaststroke. Jacques Cartonnet remained on three victories in this category. The final of the 100-meter freestyle will result in a clash with a club partner: "The spectators were gripped by the harshness of the struggle between the two clubmates, Schatz and Nakache. But the Constantinois was the strongest and ended in flexibility in 1'1 "." With his victory over the 200-meter freestyle the day before, it's a three-for-one pass for Nakache, then at the height of his glory, adored by the newspapers of the day. Apart from the antisemitic weekly Gringoire, where his detractors undermine his exploits.
While being licensed to the Nautical Club of Paris, Nakache is also, like his wife Paule, professor of physical education. Arise the 40s and the Vichy regime. On October 7, 1940, Marshal Petain repealed the Cremieux decree, which granted French citizenship to the Jews of Algeria. Nakache is stripped of his nationality. Consequence: he must exile himself to the free zone. He takes refuge in Toulouse and takes his license in the club of the Dolphins of Toec where he is trained by Alban Minville, a coach of reference. Nakache is also approaching Jewish resistance networks, including the Jewish army he trains recruits, in his gym.
Deported in 1943
The swimmer continues his exploits, winning the European records of the 100 meters and 200 meters breaststroke, and that of the world of the 200 meters breaststroke in 1940 and 1941. At the championships of France 1942, he will cumulate five titles of champions of France. Under Vichy, he would be protected by Jean Borotra, then Minister of Sports, with whom he will go on tour in North Africa. Borotra returned in April 1942, sportsmen of North Africa like him, Ben Barek or Cerdan begin to be ignored by the newspapers. In 1943, the Gestapo forbade him, like other Jewish athletes, to line up at the start of the French swimming championships. Its Toec partners and other swimmers boycott the event.
Finally, he will be arrested with his wife and daughter in December 1943 and deported to Auschwitz. Some, like today his niece, say that it is his rival Jacques Cartonnet, then head of the youth service and sports of the militia of Haute-Garonne, who would be responsible for his deportation. His wife and daughter are gassed as soon as they arrive in the camps. Nakache will be the "death march" between Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Newspapers are rumored to have died, as Humanity from August 31, 1944: "Deported to Poland with his wife and child, he worked in the Silesian salt mines with Young Perez (famous Tunisian boxer of the time, shot during the death marches after the evacuation of Auschwitz, editor's note). A repatriate claims to have seen his grave. "
The news spreads in the press, to Algeria: in October 1944, the Echo of Algiers announces that «The great swimming champion Alfred Nakache would have died in a German concentration camp in Poland».
"Morale is affected"
Finally, Nakache returned to Toulouse in the spring of 1945, considerably emaciated. Yet, a month after his return, he returns to dominate the basins. In the newspaper Tonight of June 21, 1945: "Alfred Nakache, who had been thought lost for the sport and returned from Buchenwald only a month ago, has already made his return. His qualities do not seem dull and he swam Sunday at the Tourelles, 1'16 " to the 100 meters breaststroke, thus remaining our best "papillonneur". " The daily newspaper of Aragon also boasts its water polo qualities. Asked about his plans for the future, Nakache tempers: "I readjust little by little and intend to settle permanently in Toulouse. Perhaps I will go back to the gym I was running before my deportation. Physically, I'm recovering, but the morale is affected. "
The one who is now called the "swimmer of Auschwitz" finally found his pre-war form: in 1946, he became champion of France again and participated in the world record 3x100m 3 medley. At the London Olympics in 1948, twelve years after his first selection in the French team, he took part in the 200-meter breaststroke and the water polo competition. Alfred Nakache will retire a few months after the competition, devoting himself to his job as a sports teacher. On August 4, 1983, he died at the age of 67, crossing the bay of Cerbère (Pyrénées-Orientales) during the kilometer of swimming he was doing daily.
In 1993, the State of Israel awarded him posthumously the trophy for the great example at the Museum of International Jewish Sport. In France, several municipal swimming pools bear his name, be it in Nancy, Montpellier or in the Belleville district in Paris. On Saturday, May 25, 2019, Alfred Nakache entered the Hall of Fame of World Swimming. "We love heroes. This guy started from scratch and became a champion. Everything is possible when one manages to surpass oneself ", commented the head of the institution. In Toulouse, the Nakache pool was inaugurated in 1944. At the time, everyone thought he was dead.
(tagsToTranslate) Alfred Nakache (t) Swimming (t) Team France (t) Auschwitz (t) Jacques Cartonnet (t) Jews (t) Constantine (t) 200 meters breaststroke (t) French Championships swimming (t) Deportation (t) Toulouse (t) Paris-Soir (t) Concentration camp (t) Papillon (t) Paris (t) Poland (t) Pool (t) Swimmer (t) North Africa (t) Olympics