Tag Archives: Holocaust

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: Abba Kovner

“The Jewish Avenger”

Abel “Abba” Kovner (1918-1987) was born in what is today Belarus and grew up in Vilnius (then part of Poland). As a young man, he was a member of HaShomer HaTzair, the Zionist youth movement. When the Nazis invaded Vilnius in 1941, Kovner escaped to a convent, but soon returned to the Vilna Ghetto to organize a Jewish resistance. At the start of 1942, Kovner secretly published a manifesto inside the Ghetto to inspire the Jews to fight back, writing that it was better to die than “go like lambs to the slaughter”. Along with several other young men, Kovner formed the United Partisan Organization, possibly the first armed underground Jewish group in Nazi Europe. Before they could launch their first large-scale attack, the Vilna Ghetto was liquidated in 1943, forcing the group to flee to the surrounding forests. From there, they launched a guerrilla warfare campaign against the Nazis. The small group began calling themselves “the Avengers” (HaNokmim) and were successful enough to draw the attention of the Red Army. They would go on to coordinate with the Soviets to crush the Nazis in Eastern Europe. Once the fate of the Nazis was sealed towards the end of 1944, Kovner was among the founders of a new group, called Bricha (“Escape”), which worked to get Jewish refugees out of Europe and to the Holy Land. Over the next couple of years, they would successfully move 250,000 Holocaust survivors to Israel. Having seen first-hand the horrific devastation inflicted by the Nazis, Kovner yearned for revenge. He started yet another group, called Nakam (“Vengeance”), seeking to punish Germany for the Holocaust. “Plan B” was to poison the water supply in Allied prisoner-of-war camps where Nazi SS soldiers were kept. The far more controversial and shocking “Plan A” was to poison the water supplies of several major German cities in order to kill 6 million Germans, one for each Jew lost in the Holocaust. Thankfully, Plan A was soon abandoned, though Kovner was still arrested by the British and held in a Cairo prison for several months. He did aim to accomplish Plan B, and Nakam members infiltrated a POW camp bakery in April 1946, coating the loaves of bread with arsenic. Over two thousands German soldiers fell ill, though no deaths were reported. In December 1947, Kovner joined the Haganah and fought in Israel’s Independence War as a captain of the Givati Brigade. Following this, he lived out the remainder of his life in a kibbutz, working tirelessly to strengthen the nascent state. He also helped to design several Holocaust museums, and testified at the Eichmann trial. More famously, Kovner wrote a series of poetry books (in Hebrew and Yiddish) describing the struggles he faced during the Holocaust and in Israel’s early years. This made him one of the country’s most celebrated poets and writers. For this, he won the Israeli Prize for Literature in 1970. A heavy smoker, Kovner succumbed to tracheal cancer before his 70th birthday.

Words of the Week

It is perfectly clear that the Arab nations do not want to solve the Arab refugee problem. They want to keep it as an open sore, as an affront against the United Nations, and as a weapon against Israel… Arab leaders don’t give a damn whether the refugees live or die.
— Sir Alexander Galloway, former head of UNRWA

Abba Kovner (Centre) and his Avengers.