Directed by:Yaron Zilberman
Psst; want to see a bunch of octogenarian women swim laps?
It may not sound like an appealing basis for a good film, but at the end of this touching documentary you’ll be cheering for the subjects of this imaginatively designed examination of Hakoah Vienna, the sports club formed by Jews in 1909 when they were banned, by law, from joining any of Austria’s other sports clubs.
Hakoah (the Hebrew word for strength) nourished Jewish athletes and became especially renowned for its capacity to develop superior swimmers, many of whom went on to become national champions while also representing the club at international Jewish athletic competitions held in Palestine in the 1920’s. By the mid-30’s, Hitler’s rise to power in neighboring Germany made public displays of anti-Semitism so acceptable that Hakoah members invited to be a part of the 1936 Olympic torch procession through Vienna’s streets were greeted with a level of animosity that still lingers in the minds of those who participated.
Judith Lux, a member of Hakoah and Austria’s most honored swimmer, refused to compete in Berlin that year; as a result, she was stripped of her titles by the Austrian Sports Federation, which also erased her name from the record books. (It would be half a century after the end of WW II before this highly personalized insult was rectified.) Yet the club labored on, developing the considerable talents of its members until the spring of 1938, when Anschluss swept the Nazis into power throughout Austria. By that time, the club’s officers were already arranging for the flight of their members, helping them to migrate to Palestine or seek asylum elsewhere in the world. The club’s facilities were seized by the authorities, but not its spirit; a newsletter kept members aware of each other’s movements and an international membership list is still published.
Documentarian Yaron Zilberman chose to bring the story of this remarkable athletic group to the screen by inviting eight woman who competed for Hakoah during its heyday to return to Vienna for a pilgrimage into the past. Seamlessly interspersing old stills and early newsreel footage with the women’s’ voice-over reminisces, Zilberman assembles a vivid portrait of Vienna’s Jewish community in the early decades of the twentieth century, when as bright and affluent members of their generation, these young women found themselves confronted with Nazism’s brand of virulent anti-Semitism. These personal stories add a highly individualized glimpse into the horrors of the Holocaust because these women were among the lucky ones; all were extracted from Austria before the war and each has gone on to lead a life of personal and professional accomplishment. To make that point, the director rather incredibly chooses to use a celebratory dinner in a Viennese restaurant to treat them to a performance of “The Buchenwald Song”, composed by a pair of that camp’s Jewish inmates who were ordered to create a marching song for their fellow prisoners. Its lyrics provide an admirable expression of indomitable Jewish will and a sickening example of the bestial circumstances into which so many of Europe’s Jews were forced.
But it’s the symbolic group swim which provides the film’s raison d’etre and its most emotionally charged moments; as these silver-haired grandmothers glide through the waters of an Olympic-sized pool still displaying the skills which brought them such recognition and satisfaction 70+ years ago, it’s simply impossible not to cheer the ultimate triumph represented by their very different and accomplished lives. At the same time, the audience has to lament what might have been--for them and the millions who weren’t able to escape Hitler’s murderous obsessions.
The Austria that banned their participation in its sports clubs and waited over 50 years to reinstate the records of its most outstanding Jewish athlete remains an uncomfortable place for every one of these women, none of whom returned to Vienna after the war. Zilberman and his crew have captured that pervasive sense of loss amidst the chronicle of these indomitable former athletes, making WATERrmarks as emotionally haunting as it is intellectually fascinating.
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