Who was Alfred Nakache, "swimmer of Auschwitz"?

Long forgotten, Alfred Nakache will become this weekend in Fort Lauderdale (Florida) the ninth French swimmer inducted into the World Swimming Hall of Fame, 36 years after his death.

Born in 1915 in Constantine, Algeria, Alfred Nakache grew up in a Jewish family of eleven children. To overcome his phobia of water, "Artem", his nickname, plunges into the pool. His brother Robert remembers, in a documentary by Christian Meunier, those who made him love swimming. "As a young man, he hated water. Thanks to two soldiers based in Constantine who had participated in the French Swimming Championships, he managed to love swimming. "

At 16, he became champion of North Africa and crossed the Mediterranean three years later to participate in the French Swimming Championships. Second in the 100m freestyle behind the legend Jean Taris – he will join the Hall of Fame of the world swimming – Nakache moved to France to fully devote himself to swimming at Racing Club de France. In 1939, he graduated from his class and became professor of physical education at the Lycée Janson-de-Sailly in Paris.

In the horror of the death camps

Torn from his nationality and his teaching position by the Vichy regime in 1940, Artem joined Free France and fled to Toulouse (Haute-Garonne) with his family. With his new club, the TOEC dolphins, Alfred Nakache continues to perform. In 1941, he won the world record for the 200m breaststroke. A year later, he won five French championship titles in the 100m, 200m, 400m freestyle, 200m breaststroke and 4x200m freestyle relay.

But the war will break its momentum. Arrested by the Gestapo at the end of 1943, Alfred was deported to Auschwitz with his wife Paule and his two-year-old daughter Annie. Without news of them for years, he will learn later that they were gassed upon their arrival at the camp.

Known to SS officers, the champion must suffer the humiliation of his torturers. He must retrieve a dagger with the teeth at the bottom of the water retention basin. As a sign of resistance, the swimmer and his friends swim in the camp's fire tanks. Faced with the advance of the Soviet troops, the deportees from Auschwitz camp are evacuated to Buchenwald. Then begin the steps of death. Once released, Alfred returns to the South of France.

From Berlin to London, the broken Olympic dream

The Frenchman has a troubled history with the Olympics. In 1936, the Jewish swimmer participated in the Berlin Olympics organized by the Nazi regime. In the relay final 4 x 100 m, he takes with his friends the 4th place just in front of Germany under the eyes of Hitler.

World War II then breaks the Olympic dreams of the champion, at the height of his career. At the Liberation, Alfred Nakache weighs more than 40 kilos or half of its original weight. He finds his city of Toulouse and discovers that his swimming pool bears his name since 1944, everyone believing him dead.

But the survivor is rebuilt thanks to sport and conquers a new title of champion of France in 1946. Two years later, he participates in his second Olympics in London in swimming, but also in water polo, without winning a medal.

A life turned towards the water that will finish in 1983. After his daily kilometer in the port of Cerbère in the Pyrenees-Orientales, the swimmer collapses and dies of a cardiac malaise to 67 years.

Alfred Nakache posthumously obtains in 1993 the trophy of the great example at the International Museum of Jewish Sport in Israel. In France, many pools bear his name in Toulouse, Nancy, Montpellier, Paris. In a few days, the world of swimming will raise it officially to the rank of legend.

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