The Guardian

A group of women in their 80s sit in a Viennese cafe. Spread out on the table in front of them are faded old photos of teenage girls, sleek and smiling in long, dark bathing suits. In one snapshot, members of a swimming team stand sideways to the camera, each with one leg kicking high, like a chorus line. Another shows a diver’s slender body arrowing into a pool at an exact vertical, her fingertips just breaking the surface of the water. The women turn to Greta Stanton, a retired academic from New Jersey, and praise the perfect dive she executed decades before.

‘Watermarks’, a new documentary directed by Yaron Zilberman, uncovers the story of the women swimmers of the Jewish sports club Hakoah Vienna in the 1930s. They were the most successful team in the country, breaking records and dominating national competitions. But it wasn’t to last. After the German annexation of Austria in 1938, the club was immediately shut down by the Nazis, and the team members, fearing for their lives, helped each other to escape overseas. Zilberman has tracked down half-a-dozen of the swimmers, scattered around the world, and persuaded them to recall their lives in Hakoah. ‘Watermarks’ takes the form of conversations with these remarkable women — they are direct, wry, resourceful — intercut with archive footage, newsreels and images raided from dusty family albums. “This was over 60 years ago,’’ reflects Ann-Marie Pisker, who lives in London. “Such a long time. It doesn’t seem possible. A different life. A different age.’’ At the end of the film, the women make the journey back to Vienna, where the team is reunited and swims for a final time in the beautiful art-deco Amalienbad pool.

Hakoah was founded in 1909 in response to the “Aryan clause’’, an Austrian law which allowed organisations to bar Jews. The club represented an attempt to create what the Hungarian writer and Zionist Max Nordau had called “a Jewry of muscles’’ (Hakoah means “strength’’ in Hebrew) and set out to confront the stereotype of Jews as unathletic.

“We wanted very much to show Austria how good Jewish sportspeople could be,” Ann-Marie says. “Because they always thought we never had any history of sports.’’ The club’s first success was in football: Hakoah Vienna moved up the Austrian divisions before eventually winning the championship, and, in 1924, became the first foreign team to beat English opponents on their home turf, scoring a celebrated 5-0 victory against West Ham. That Hakoah became renowned for swimming was thanks to two women members famous throughout Austria in the late 1920s: Hedy Bienenfeld, a breaststroke champion and fashion model; and Fritzy Lowy, notorious for her lesbianism, who for years was unbeaten in the freestyle “Across All Vienna’’ race in the Danube, the nation’s favourite sporting event. They were coached by Zsigo Wertheimer, a legendary disciplinarian who would throw his shoes at any slackers in the pool.

The Watermarks generation of swimmers were Wertheimer’s next protegees. Several of the girls had to overcome parental objections to them joining the club: some parents thought the sporting lifestyle too racy; others, from deeply assimilated Jewish families, were nervous about Hakoah’s Zionist ethos. Elisheva Susz, now a respected psychologist living in Israel, recalls that she had never thought about her Jewish identity before joining. But life as part of Hakoah was too liberating for the teenagers not to defy their parents’ will. The women remember sunny days at lidos where “hundreds of young Viennese would swim and mingle’’, and the fun they had at the summer training camp in the southern resort of Portschach on Lake Worthersee. With growing numbers of Austrians sympathising with the Nazi regime in Germany, life for Hakoah’s athletes soon became more difficult. The club both challenged and was challenged by anti-semitism. Zilberman’s carefully crafted film is, in part, a celebration of resilience - his own tribute, among many, to a generation of Jews that were forced to reshape their lives and remake themselves. Ann-Marie recalls how much she had liked living in Austria and how, only those who have emigrated can possibly understand how traumatic an experience it can be. “I left with two suitcases and five pounds. You have no idea. You sink or you swim. And when you are young, you swim.’’