Tag Archives: International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame

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: Daniel Mendoza

The Father of Modern Boxing

Daniel Mendoza - Father of Modern Boxing

Daniel Mendoza – Father of Modern Boxing

Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836) was born in England to a Jewish family of Portuguese descent. Little is known of his early life. At 16, he was working for a tea company, and stepped in to protect his employer from a client. It is reported that the bout lasted 45 minutes until the much older and larger assailant could no longer continue. The young Mendoza became a local hero. He was soon drawn to the sport of boxing and found a mentor. By 1788 he had won 27 bare-knuckle boxing matches, all by knockout. By 1792 he had become the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of England, despite being just 160 pounds and officially designated a middleweight. He went on to become the first middleweight in history to win the Heavyweight Championship of the World. Mendoza’s immense success lay in his revolutionary tactics. Until this point, boxing typically consisted of a series of punches and very little movement. Mendoza developed a form of boxing based on defensive principles like ducking and blocking instead of just offence. He is credited with inventing the side-step, and developing the strategy of wearing down an opponent. Later, Mendoza opened his own boxing school and wrote a book called The Art of Boxing where he described the sport as a science. He traveled across Great Britain to teach his methods, inspiring a new generation of boxers. For all of these reasons, among others, he has been called “the father of modern boxing”, and not surprisingly, was first to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Mendoza was also instrumental in changing the stereotypical European image of the “weak Jew”, and was the first Jew to have an audience with King George III. Both a play and film have been made about his life.

Words of the Week

When you are not practicing, remember that someone, somewhere, is practicing, and when you meet him, he will win.
– Ed Macauley

1788 Illustration of Mendoza’s match with Richard Humphreys