Alfred Nakache was born in Constantine Algeria in 1915, into a jewish family with origins from Irak. His mother and father had four children. When his father was widowed he married his first wife’s sister and had six more children making one big happy family.
As a small child Alfred was actually afraid of water, one day he discovered that not only could he brave the water but that he liked it. Swimming was gaining popularity partly because of the charismatic Johnny Weissmüller and also the fact that the Olympic Games were set to take place in Paris in 1924.
Due to a chance encounter with two Parisians completing their military service, the young Alfred was coached at front crawl and the breast stroke. He reckoned that you learn quickly when you enjoy things. He went on to join the young aquatic team in Constantine and competed in his first race at the North African championships. It wasn’t long before he won the Christmas Cup of Constantine for the 400 metre open sea swim.
In 1933 he left for Paris to swim with the big fish, notably Jean Taris, his idol at the time. He joined le Racing Club and le Club Nautique de Paris, the capital’s two most prestigious clubs, allowing him to train with the best and compete. In 1934 he came second, just behind Jean Taris at the championships. He won his first title shortly thereafter in the 100 metre.
Photo of Nakache taken by Jean Dieuzade
His career was taking off around the time he met Paule Elbaz , also from Constantine who became his wife. Rather than basking in the limelight he chose to pursue a career as a sports teacher.
During this time xenophobia and anti semitism were on the rise. Hitler was in power and his intentions were becoming clear.
Meanwhile Alfred Nakache was working towards competing at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The Jewish athletes of Germany had already been banned from competing. The Spanish decided not to attend the games. The French, for sometime undecided, finished by forbidding a boycott. Alfred Nakache and his fellow French teammates attended the games but did not dazzle, and only came fourth in the relay, just ahead of the Germans.
As the career of Alfred Nakache was advancing, the political situation was worsening and he was advised not to travel back to Germany for another competition. On the night of 9th November 1938, known as the nuit de cristal, shops and synagogues were burned and jewish people rounded up and sent to concentration camps, with one hundred being killed that night alone.
At the beginning of September 1939, after Hitler invaded Poland, France was ‘at war’ with Hitler’s Germany. Alfred, along with two of his brothers rejoined the Air Force. During this time his brother Roger was killed. Alfred returned to Paris in June 1940 to be with his wife. They lived in the occupied zone. When Maréchal Pétain took power and the collaboration was born the décret crémieux was repealed. Algerians of Jewish decent were stripped of their French nationality. Alfred Nakache was no longer French.
The laws regarding Jews changed and he was no longer allowed to teach sports. He sought refuge in Toulouse in the unoccupied zone and returned to his passion, swimming. The population of Jews fleeing Nazism rose from 1500 before the war to 15000 in the city of Toulouse. By the spring of 1940 there were around 200 000 refugees, and the city was overwhelmed, a veritable refugee camp.
In 1941 in Marseille Nakache broke the world record for the 200m breaststroke at 2 minutes 36 seconds. He was at the summit of his career and the height of his popularity. At home he became a father. His daughter Annie was born on the 12 August 1941. Suddenly the journalists stopped singing his praises and started to ask “is Nakache Jewish?”, something he had never tried to hide.
In Paris on the 16 and 17 July 1942 more than 13000 Jews were stopped, locked up and then transferred to various camps in France. In August waves of arrests began to occur in Toulouse, despite efforts by the courageous Monseigneur Saliège, archeveque of Toulouse.
In November 1942 came the invasion of the southern zone. The Germans were in Toulouse, officially occupying all of France. A law was passed, la loi du 18 décembre which obliged all Jews in the southern zone to mark their ID cards with JUIF in red lettres. All of them could be stopped and interrogated for any or no reason.
In 1942 Nakache took home 6 out of 8 possible titles and felt supported by his teammates and didn’t see the need to flee. He aligned himself unsurprisingly with the resistance.
In November 1943 Alfred and his wife Paule, as well as their 2 year old daughter were arrested at their home by the Gestapo and accused of engaging in anti German propaganda. The three of them were interred, first at the Prison St Michel, in Toulouse, and then at Drancy. After the long journey to Auschwitz they were separated, his wife and little girl on the left and Alfred on the right. They never saw each other again. He learned years later that they were almost immediately led to a gaz chamber and killed. He was kept alive to work at the camp.
Without knowledge of his family he endured his time as a prisoner. He worked as an auxiliary nurse helping to clean the wounds of other working prisoners, and with others created a ‘resistance’ inside the camp, helping to feed starving prisoners by stealing bread and marmalade. He even managed to swim a little at the camp as he was forced to dive for keys and other items thrown in a bassin, meant for putting out fires, to amuse the SS. He ended his internment at Buchenwald and was liberated in April 1945.
Sometime earlier in 1944, after Toulouse was liberated, they named a municipal swimming pool after Alfred Nakache to honour and never forget him. They were very happily surprised when he turned up alive after his liberation. Eventually after some time he learned that his family, his wife and little daughter, had been killed almost immediately after they were separated.
His wife Paule and their young daughter Annie on the left and an illustration by fellow inmate Willy Holt, right.
His old teammates and his trainer Alban Minville convinced him to get back in the pool and when he regained his strength he did. Once again he became champion de France, in 1946.
He found love again and settled in Sète where he continued coaching and followed very closely the career of Jean Boiteux who in 1952 at the Olympic Games in Helsinki became the first Frenchman to win a swimming gold at the Olympics.
During his lifetime Alfred Nakache won 35 France championship titles.
He died at the age of 68 on holiday in the south of France.
There is currently an exhibition in Toulouse about the swimmer Alfred Nakache at the former prison St Michel, now known as Castelet. Until 31 Décember 2022 free admission.
A bientôt ………………………………………………………………………………….Christina
How awful that his wife and little daughter were killed almost immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz. This reminds me of the opera “Die Passagierin” by Mieczysław Weinberg, about the dreadful conditions in the concentration camps, where most were murdered and only a few survived.
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Such a dark time in history, very sad indeed. I don’t know that opera. Will check it out.
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