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Strong current Jewish athletes are still swimming against prejudice

The surprises in the documentary "Watermarks" are many and, at first, pleasant.

Who knew there was a team of top-achieving Jewish athletes in Vienna in the 1920s and 1930s? Not Director Yaron Zilberman, who learned about the club during research for another project, and admits to perceiving "pre-Holocaust Jewry as an intellectually gifted but physically frail people."

Who could imagine that their Hakoah Vienna Sports Club would be the saving link for these athletes, who were spirited to freedom across the globe as Austria descended into the hate orgy of Nazism?

And when they reunite in Vienna to swim at their old pool one last time, who could predict the bittersweet reception they receive, the bonds that are strengthened and the never-to-be-healed wounds that are reopened?

On the surface, the story is straightforward. Hakoah ("The Strength" in Hebrew) Vienna formed in 1909 when Jews were banned from Austrian sports clubs. It began with a prizewinning soccer team. Winin a few years, athletes competed in water polo, fencing and many other sports, but its glory began with the female swimmers who dominated meets in the 1930, just as the specter of Nazism was rising.

Zilberman tracks down eight of the women, now in their 80s and scattered across the globe from Israel to California. In charming interviews with each one, richly interspersed with photos of their champion days, he collects the history of their achievements and their memories of escape to exile. He invites them to return to Vienna for a reunion and to swim together in their old pool.

The women are fascinating characters. In London, the feisty Ann Marie tells Zilberman bluntly that she will not be filmed in a swimsuit except in the water "at my age," which is 83. In Los Angeles, the sweet Anni has lost her vision, but still swims in her home pool, folding back a bit of the cover so she can stay in a lane. In Israel, two sisters, Hanni and Judith, meet daily at 6 p.m. to sip vermouth and recite poetry. Judith, who may be the frailest, was Austria's top swimmer when she refused to represent the country in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Austria banned her from competing and stripped her of her medals.

The women share their stories of triumph, persecution and exile with a strength and equanimity that lulls the viewer into a calm acceptance of their lives. The war itself is dealt with in only a few minutes, and the Holocaust mentioned briefly. Surely, all is well now.

Then the women return to Vienna. Greta, a diver, age 83, is picked up at the airport by a driver who looks about 30. She is proud and smiling as he welcomes her back. "You emigrated?" he asks. "Well, they kicked me out," she replies. "You don't say," he says with mild surprise. She tells him that she had to flee after living for more than a year under Hitler. "When was that?" he asks with almost incomprehensible doltishness. They agree that "those were terrible times," but her smile freezes on her face when he says, "Those were terrible times for non-Natives, so to speak. You weren't German, so to speak." Although she simply replies that she and her parents were all born in Vienna, it's clear what he means. Later, in a voice-over, she fumes at his remark to her, who has "400 years of Germans in my family, in Germany and Austria!"

But that's just the beginning. Walking the streets of Vienna with her granddaughter, Hanni tells a harrowing tale of terror, and it's clear that the fear and rejection still haunt her. Then, in a scene that's a bit difficult to fathom, a jolly singer concludes an enjoyable evening's entertainment with the hated "Buchenwald March."

"Watermarks," which accents the athletes' halcyon days, begins and ends as a story of strength and triumph. With its leisurely and understated pacing, it soothes the viewer into being blindsided by the brutal truth that hatred continues to feed on ignorance.

WATERMARKS

Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)

FEATURING: The champion female swimmers, now in their 80s, of the Jewish sports in 1903s Vienna

DIRECTOR: Yaron Zilberman

RUNNING TIME: 84 minutes

RATING: Unrated

THE LOWDOWN: Six decades later, champion women swimmers who fled Nazism reunite to swim together in Vienna one last time. In English, German, French and Hebrew, with subtitles.

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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