Category Archives: World of Sport

Jews in the World of Sport

Jews of the Week: Alfred Nakache & Ben Helfgott

The Holocaust Survivors Who Became Olympians

Helfgott at the 1966 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia

Ben Helfgott (b. 1929) was born in Poland and was only a child when the Nazis invaded his country. He was sent with his entire family to Buchenwald concentration camp. Everyone perished except for one sister. After the war, Helfgott was among some 750 Jewish kids under 16 taken to England as refugees. Now safe in England, Helfgott started a Jewish youth club and became a big fan of sports. He was soon introduced to weightlifting and wanted to take it up professionally. Being just 5 foot 4 inches tall, and weighing 154 pounds, Helfgott was told to find another sport. He persisted nonetheless, and at age 26, became England’s champion in the 11-stone division. He went on to win four more English and British Commonwealth weightlifting championships, and represented the UK at the 1956 Olympics in Australia. He returned in the 1960 Olympics in Rome as the coach of the UK weightlifting team. He also participated in the Maccabiah Games, earning weightlifting gold three times. After retiring from sport, Helfgott became a successful businessman. He used his wealth to start The ’45 Aid Society, generously supporting struggling Holocaust survivors. Helfgott was recently knighted by Queen Elizabeth. He is one of just two Holocaust survivors to become an Olympian.

Alfred Nakache

The other is Alfred Nakache (1915-1983), born in French Algeria to a traditional Sephardic family of eleven children. As a child, Nakache had a crippling fear of water. He made the decision to overcome his phobia, and soon immersed himself in swimming and water sports. He went on to become a five-time French swimming champion, and set five European and World Records. After a silver medal at the 1935 Maccabiah Games, Nakache made the French Olympic team and competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. When the Nazis invaded France, Nakache escaped to the Free Zone in the south of the country. He wasn’t safe from anti-Semitism, though. Banned from swimming in Toulouse, he moved to Marseilles. Several weeks after setting a new record in the 400 metre butterfly in 1943, he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz. Surviving the camp’s hellish conditions, Nakache returned to swimming, setting a new French record in 1946. He made the French Olympic team again and participated in the 1948 games in London. In 1993, Nakache was inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. He was the subject of the 2001 documentary Alfred Nakache, the Swimmer of Auschwitz. Today, many pools across France are named after him.

What’s the Difference Between Ashkenazim and Sephardim?

Words of the Week

According to the pain is the gain.
– Pirkei Avot 5:21

Nakache (far left) with the French relay team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Helfgott (inset) at a weightlifting competition.

Jew of the Week: Edgar Davids

The Pitbull of Football

Edgar Steven Davids (b. 1973) was born in Suriname to an African-Surinamese father and a Dutch-Jewish mother. The family moved to the Netherlands when Davids was still a child, and the boy grew up immersed in soccer. By age 12, he signed on with Amsterdam Ajax, a team known for its “Jewish” character. (This is probably due to the team’s origins in pre-war Amsterdam, which had a huge Jewish population and was then nicknamed “Jerusalem of the West”. Today, Amsterdam is still known by the locals as “Mokum” from the Yiddish-Hebrew word meaning “place”). Davids soon led Ajex to three national championships. He also led the team to the finals in several UEFA tournaments. It was while playing for Ajax that he earned his nickname, “the Pitbull”. Davids moved to Italy in 1996 and played for AC Milan and Juventus. His greatest success was in Turin, where he led the team to multiple championships, and was described as a “one-man engine-room”. During this time, he underwent surgery on his right eye (for glaucoma from a previous injury), and henceforth wore his trademark protective glasses. In 2004, he joined Barcelona and immediately changed the team’s fortunes. The struggling club suddenly went on a hot streak, winning all but two games in the rest of the season, and going on to dominate the European football scene for a decade. Davids timely presence has been credited with this huge shift in the club’s history. Davids also played for the Dutch national team in multiple FIFA and Euro Cups, twice being named to the all-star “Team of the Tournament”. In 2002, he was chosen to be one of the stars in a Nike commercial for that year’s FIFA World Cup. The premise of the ad was a “secret tournament” for the world’s “24 elite players”. The video was hugely popular (as was its music, a remix of Elvis’ “A Little Less Conversation”). Towards the end of his career, Davids played in England for Tottenham Hotspur, famous for having a large Jewish fan-base. After a brief stint back in Ajax, he later managed London’s Barnet Football Club, representing an area that is also heavily Jewish. It seems he grew closer to his Jewish roots throughout these years, and once remarked before a big game: “Although I don’t go to synagogue, I will say a little prayer…” In 2004, Davids was ranked among the FIFA 100 World’s Greatest Living Footballers. The 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off today.

Words of the Week

Most men worry about their own bellies, and other people’s souls, when we all ought to be worried about our own souls, and other people’s bellies.
– Rabbi Israel Salanter (1809-1883)