Tag Archives: World Record

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: Naomi Kutin & Scot Mendelson

The World’s Strongest People

Naomi Kutin, "Supergirl" (courtesy: www.jewpop.com)

Naomi Kutin, “Supergirl”
(courtesy: www.jewpop.com)

Naomi Kutin (b. 2001) was born in New Jersey to a Modern Orthodox family. Her father is a former professional weightlifter (with a number of records under his belt), and introduced his daughter to the sport when she was just eight years old after noting her incredible strength. A few months later, Naomi went to her first competition, and broke a national record. At age 10, she set a world record in women’s powerlifting, breaking an earlier record set by a 44-year old woman! Two years later, she squatted over 231 pounds to set a new women’s world record, despite being just 12 years old. She has earned the nickname “supergirl”, and is often described as the world’s strongest young lady. Naomi doesn’t let her weightlifting get in the way of religious observance; she still goes to an Orthodox school and never competes on Shabbat.

Scot Mendelson (courtesy: Powerlifting USA)

Scot Mendelson
(courtesy: Powerlifting USA)

Meanwhile, the world’s greatest bench-presser is also Jewish, Brooklyn-born Scot Mendelson (b. 1969). Growing up playing sports, Mendelson progressed from ball games to wrestling, boxing, bodybuilding, and finally powerlifting. In 2003, he set the all-time world record (regardless of weight class) by bench pressing 713 pounds. All in all, he has broken over 60 records in his career, winning four World Championships. He currently resides in California, where he operates a gym, and also runs a wellness centre together with actor Eric Roberts.

Words of the Week

Those who are born are destined to die, and those who die are destined to live again.
– Pirkei Avot 4:22