Tag Archives: Weightlifting

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.

Jews of the Week: Joe and Ben Weider

Godfathers of Bodybuilding

Weider Brothers with Arnold Schwarznegger (Credit: ibffpro.com)

Weider Brothers with Arnold Schwarznegger (Credit: ibffpro.com)

Joseph (1920-2013) and Benjamin (1923-2008) Weider were born to a Polish-Jewish immigrant family in Montreal. Constantly bullied while growing up, they began exercising and lifting weights in their teenage years, making their own equipment out of old car wheels and axles. As their muscles grew, their adversaries disappeared, and the boys’ self-esteem shot up. They decided to share their new passion with others. At 18, Joe started a bodybuilding magazine called Your Physique. By 1943, the magazine had become popular across Canada. A few years later (following Ben’s return from World War II service) the brothers organized the first “Mr. Canada” contest. Ben then went on a mission around the world to spread the art of bodybuilding, after which the brothers established the International Federation of Bodybuilders. By 1952, their magazine had 25 million readers around the globe. Unfortunately, the sport slowly lost popularity, and by the 1960s, the Weiders were looking for a fresh start. They created a new competition, Mr. Olympia, but it initially didn’t bring the success they hoped for. The brothers moved to California, now with a new magazine, Muscle Builder. While in Europe, they met a young bodybuilder, and decided that he would be the image of their new brand. The brothers brought him to California, settled him in, trained him, taught him about business and media, and eventually turned him into one of Hollywood’s greatest: Arnold Schwarzenegger. (In 2006, then-Governor Schwarznegger presented the brothers with a Lifetime Achievement award, and in his speech thanked them for inspiring him, bringing him to America, and skyrocketing his career.) Ultimately, the Weiders would run several more magazines – including Men’s Fitness and a women’s health magazine called Shape – as well as produce their own health products, vitamins, and supplements (Weider Nutrition is considered the first sports nutrition company). From the start, they warned millions of their readers about the dangers of tobacco and alcohol, and refused to publish ads for these products in their magazines. Not surprisingly, the Weiders are credited with bringing greater awareness of healthy living and exercise to the masses. The brothers were also praised for breaking down barriers and allowing blacks, Hispanics, and women into their competitions at a time when it was still considered taboo. Surprisingly, Ben is also a noted historian, specializing in Napoleonic times, and co-writing several books on the subject. He has been awarded the Order of Canada, the French Legion of Honour, and was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Meanwhile, Joe wrote a couple of books on bodybuilding, and was voted Publisher of the Year in 1983. Along the way, the brothers never abandoned their connection to Judaism, often corresponding with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and donating generously to Chabad organizations, among many others.

Words of the Week

It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?
– Henry David Thoreau