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Swimming with—and against—the Tide

The year is 1909 in Vienna. Austrian sports clubs have just outlawed Jewish athletes. In response, the Jewish community creates a Jewish sports club of its own: Hakoah (strength, in Hebrew). Its women swim team thrives; by the 1930s Jewish women are competing for spots in the Olympics. But in 1938 the Nazis shut down the club, thus ending the Olympic hopes for the Jewish Austrian athletes.

In his film “Watermarks” (Kino International, 2004), Israeli filmmaker Yaron Zilberman spotlights eight of these now-octogenarian champion women swimmers, interviewing them nearly 65 years later at home, at work, and in social settings around the world. And then Zilberman arranges, and films, a reunion in Vienna. After success at film festivals, the film is now being shown commercially.

Magnetic with the women’s girlish memories of early romance, team loyalty and their own robust athleticism. “Watermarks” also speaks to the much greater issue at hand: that Hakoah literally saved these women’s lives. Just before the war broke out, in order to protect its Jewish athletes Hakoah’s functionaries organized an escape operation, relocating the athletes in countries throughout the world, necessitating their leaving behind parents, families, lovers and friends. At its essence, this film marks the accounts of their escape from the tragedies of Jewish Vienna, the difficult reestablishment of each of their lives, and the bonds that kept the team in touch across the globe throughout their lives. Zilberman clearly relishes the stories of these “cheerful and proactive” women. In the film’s last scenes, he gathers them, graceful swimmers still, for a final swim together in the still-lovely old Hakoah pool.

Ilana Kramer is a graduate student in gender politics at New York University.