I spent a week in Toulouse, in south-west France, during the summer, and with the temperature well into the thirties I paid a few visits to the municipal swimming pool. Like most French public sports facilities, it’s tremendous – two 50 meter pools (one indoor, one outdoor) and another outdoor pool that is 150 meters long and 50 wide, as well as free tennis, volleyball, table tennis and much else, all in a park with plenty of trees for shade.
But one of the things I like most about it is that one of the pools is named after an extraordinary man, Alfred Nakache. Nakache was an Algerian Jew who moved to Paris in 1933 and swam for France in the 1936 Olympic Games. After the defeat of France in 1940, he had to leave Paris, which was in the German occupied zone and where Jews had their French citizenship revoked. He moved to Toulouse in the Vichy state and continued to swim competitively with the famous local club the Dauphins (Dolphins), even setting a world record in Marseille in 1942.
In November 1943 he was arrested, along with his wife Paule and 2-year old daughter Annie, and deported to Auschwitz. He never saw them again, but he himself survived Auschwitz, including the notorious death march to Buchenwald when the camp was about to be captured by the Red Army. He returned to Toulouse weighing 44 kilos (seven stone) less than before his deportation, but resumed his training, and astonishingly competed for France in the London Olympics of 1948, one of two camp survivors to compete.
Nakache’s story is an extraordinary one, and if it was written as a work of fiction it might be thought implausible. For example:
– one of his principal swimming rivals in the 1930s was Jacques Cartonnet, who later became a right-wing and anti-semitic journalist and during the war conducted a press campaign against Nakache
– Nakache survived Auschwitz partly because the camp guards amused themselves by getting him to dive into a large tank of stagnant water and retrieve objects with his teeth
– when he got back to Toulouse after the war he found that the pool had been named in his honour on the assumption that he was dead, but the name was not subsequently changed
– he went to the railway station to meet trains for months after the end of the war, hoping to find his wife and daughter
– in his retirement he lived on the Mediterranean coast and swam a kilometre every day; it was during one of these swims that he had a heart attack and drowned, in 1983 aged 67.
– Niall Ó Ciosáin