Tag Archives: Algerian Jews

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.

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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: Sivan Borowich-Ya’ari

Saving Africa With Israeli Technology

Sivan Borowich-Ya'ari

Sivan Borowich-Ya’ari

Sivan Borowich-Ya’ari was born in Israel to an Algerian-Jewish father and Tunisian-Jewish mother. She was raised in France, but returned to Israel to serve in the army. After her service, Ya’ari moved to the United States to pursue higher education. While completing a Master’s at Columbia University, she went on an internship to Senegal with the United Nations Development Program, working to bring electrical generators to poor villages. Inspired by the terrible living conditions that she saw, Ya’ari took it upon herself to make a positive change in Africa. Soon after, she started her own project to bring solar-powered electricity to a Tanzanian village. In 2008, Ya’ari founded a non-profit organization, originally called Jewish Heart for Africa, and now Innovation: Africa. Its mission: making Africa a better place, and doing it with modern Israeli technology. Since then, her organization has helped bring light and electricity, food and water, education and medical care to over 450,000 people in Africa, particularly in Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania and Malawi. Over 250,000 children have been able to get vaccinated thanks to solar refrigerators provided by Innovation: Africa. Ya’ari works together with impoverished villages to bring them the basic infrastructure that they need. Her efforts have stimulated business opportunities, wider education, and better health. The organization maintains its promise to contribute 100% of donations for its causes, a part of which goes to develop novel Israeli technologies. Last fall, Ya’ari was honoured with the United Nation’s Innovation Award.

Words of the Week

You speak of all that you need, but you say nothing of what you are needed for.
– Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi