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Dec 2005 Journal

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Legendary Jewish swimmers (film review)

directed by Yaron Zilberman
Screen on the Hill, Belsize Park, North London

Jewish survivors loathe the perception of their role in Nazi Europe as acquiescent victims. A very different truth is observed in the uplifting 77-minute documentary film Watermarks, which features a group of women swimmers who belonged to the legendary Viennese Jewish sports club Hakoah, founded in 1909 when Jews were banned from national sports clubs but ironically encouraged to compete nationally.

Hakoah's reputation grew through its women swimmers, who dominated national competitions of the day. Whent they refused to represent Austria in the 1936 Berlin Olympics since this meant giving Hitler the salute, Austria stripped them of their medals, and in some cases all their records were erased.

To preserve this cameo of Jewish history in the midst of the Nazi inferno, Israeli film director Yaron Zilberman embarked on a world-wide mission to track down members of the original team, arranging a reunion at the swimming pool in Vienna where they last competed 65 years ago. His vision was to return them to the place where their teenage athletic hopes were first raised and then dashed.

Hakoah's leader, Dr Rosenfeld, miraculously managed to secure safe passage for the girls and their families from Nazi-occupied Europe and produced a Hakoah newsletter to maintain contact with the athletes around the world.

Zilberman's original brief was to make a film about the Hakoah football team, but he was so captivated by the story of the women swimmers that he filmed their story instead. He could not resist using one stunning fact about the football team: Hakoah beat West Ham 5:0 in the 1920s.

He has produced a unique memoir of the swimmers' experiences in a film sponsored by the Wiener Library and shown at the Jewish Film Festival. He skilfully presents seven talented athletes, each of them powerful and charismatic, who still keep up their daily swimming regime. One of them refuses to be photographed in anything other than her swimsuit. He interviews them in their homes around the world and interweaves these discussions with black-and-white footage and photographic images of their heyday as Olympic-class swimmers.

In a moving moment, the film captures an exchange between an Austrian taxi driver and one of the swimmers, in which he refers to the Jews in Nazi Europe as 'non-native'. This seems to show that old-style antisemitism is still alive in Europe today.

The work of composer Herman Leopoldi is interspersed throughout the film, enhancing the emotion of the story. Our only problem with this film is that the blending of past and present is not seamlessly achieved. Some of the treatment gives a fragmented effect to the whole. Inevitably many questions are left unanswered.
Donna Tessler and Gloria Tessler

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