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Articles > Watermarks: A Forgotten Legacy

By Rabbi Mitch Smith

Anyone interested in the little-known world of Jewish athletes in pre-war Europe will find the film "Watermarks" currently making its way around the country, of great interest. The film tells the story of the girls' swim team of the Viennese Jewish sports club Ha'Koah, one of many such Jewish organizations founded around the turn of the century when Jews were kept out of the sports clubs of Europe.

The film's director, Yaron Zilberman, was gathering information for a documentary on the greatest soccer players of the 20th century when he came across a brief reference to the Ha'Koah Vienna Sport Club in a book on the history of soccer. Raised with the belief that European Jews were intellectually gifted but lacking in athletic prowess, he was surprised to learn that a Jewish soccer team, playing with a Star of David on their chests, was the first foreign club to beat an English team on English soil. "The story was waiting to be captured in film," Zilberman stated in the director's notes to the film.

Zilberman set about to interview as many living members of Ha'Koah as he could, scattered as they were throughout Europe, Israel and the U.S. Many of those interviewed, all between the ages of 80 and 107, turned out to be members of the girls swimming team in the 1930's whose remarkable accomplishments at home and in competitions elsewhere in Europe, marked them as the heirs to the men's soccer team, which had declined by 1927. In Austria in the 1930's swimming was a prominent national sport, and top swimmers were held in high esteem. One member of the team, Judith Deutsch, had been voted Austria's best athlete of the year in 1936, after having broken 12 national records. However, upon her refusal to participate in that year's Nazi-sponsored Olympic Games, Judith was banned from competitions for life, stripped of all her medals, and her name stricken from the record books. Hostility turned into more state-sponsored anti-Semitism with the arrival of the Anschluss, and in 1938 the Nazis shut down the club. However, Ha'Koah leaders arranged to smuggle the swimmers out of the country. Club president Valentin Rosenfeld maintained a regular newsletter to the exiles, which began, "Dear Ha'Koah members, I hope that you all are well, and feel welcome in your new countries."

Filmmaker Zilberman conducted lengthy interviews with seven of these one-time swimmers in their new homes in Israel, the U.S. and England. The film consists first of their reminiscences about what the club had meant to them in their youth, and then the group's re-union which he arranged for them back in Vienna, culminating in a visit to the very pool where they had competed over 50 years earlier.

Reviewer Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote, "...as 'Watermarks' flashes continually back and forth between the women today and pictures of their youthful selves, it is hard not to put yourself in their 1930's shoes and imagine their ordeal."

On the way to the hotel in Vienna, a member of the group, one-time diving champion Greta (Wertheimer) Stanton, is seen telling her driver that she had once lived in Vienna but had been forced to leave. The driver, shrugging off all those events as if meaningless, only serves to underscore their significance.

"Watermarks" is a window into a rich world that once existed, and is a record of the long-forgotten achievements of European Jews in the sporting arena. The film has won numerous awards, including the 2005 Palm Springs Film Festival Audience Award and the 2004 Jerusalem Film Festival Award for best cinematography.

Future screenings include the following locations:
Dallas Jewish Film FestivalSeptember 15
JCA of Sonoma, CASeptember 22
Fair Lawn NJ Jewish CenterSeptember 24
Temple of Aaron, St. Paul, MNSeptember 24
Fitchburg MA State CollegeOctober 20, 2005
Stamford CT JCCOctober 29 – November 6
North Suburban Synagogue, Highland Park, ILNovember 3
JCC of Staten Island NYNovember 15

For further comments and a fascinating account of the making of the film, the history of the Ha'Koah Club, and the film's participants, click here.

If you are interested in arranging for a screening of “Watermarks” in your community, contact info@csjl.org.

An interview with Greta Stanton will appear in the coming issue of The Jewish Sports Connection. For information on subscribing, click here.

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