This moving documentary combines contemporary interviews of surviving members of a Jewish women’s Austrian swim team with archival footage. In response to the “No Jews Allowed” policy of Austrian sports clubs, a Jewish sports club called Hakoah was founded in Vienna in the early part of the 20th century for the purpose of fielding a soccer team. In the documentary, members of the women’s swim team interviewed who are in their 80’s and live in Israel, England and the United States talk about how the club was so popular it kept adding new sports. At one point there were 3000 active members. Interviewees stressed that Jewish athletes were motivated to perform well and win medals to prove to the world that they could succeed at athletics. Many athletes who trained with Hakoah went on to win medals for Austria in major competitions.
We learn about the lives of these young girls as swimmers, their dedication to each other as well as to their sport, and the trips they took to sports events outside the country. For example they competed in the U.S. and they went to Palestine in 1935 to participate in the second Maccabbiah games. Wherever they went, their competitions were attended by thousands of adoring fans.
Two sisters who were interviewed for the movie who emigrated to Israel – Judith and Hanni Deutsch – were both on the swim team and recall vividly their great successes but also the creeping climate of hate against the Jews. The club leadership made a decision once Hitler came into power not to attend any events in Germany, which of course included the 1936 Olympics. When Judith Deutsch, who had been named best Austrian athlete in 1935, was asked to join the Austrian swim team and she declined, it provoked such anger on the part of the Austrians, they banned her from ever competing for Austria again. Her sister Hanni also related an upsetting incident. In honor of the Olympics and the Olympic torch bearer who ran through Vienna on his way to the stadium in Berlin, there was a parade in which all sporting clubs marched. Onlookers regaled members of EWASK, a pro-Nazi sports group with loud cheers of “Heil Hitler.” Members of Hakoah were met with silence. Hanni said she could feel the hate and it was terrifying.
Valentin Rosenfeld, the president of the Hakoah swim team and Zsigo Wertheimer, their coach, escaped Hitler’s clutches by fleeing to England. Once there they worked on helping members of the swim team to emigrate by providing them with the paperwork and signatures they needed. Valentin Rosenfeld then established a Hakoah newsletter that went out to all the émigrés which kept them connected.
The documentary ends with a return trip to Vienna. The women were excited but nervous. Some of them had such bad memories of Vienna, they didn’t want to return, but they reconnected, revisited the city of their youth, and confronted their past. This documentary brings to light through interviews with the former swimmers, through their conversations with each other, and through fascinating archival footage, their triumphs representing a Jewish sports club in 1930’s Vienna. Their collective experience constitutes a thread in the tapestry of European history that deserves to be better known today.
To read an interesting article in the Forward that covered the 100th birthday of the founding of Hakoah in Vienna and discusses the size and status of the Vienna Jewish community today, click here.
Hanne Deutsch Lux
Judith Deutsch Haspel
Trude Platzek Hirschler
Ann Marie Pick Pisker
Greta Wertheimer Stanton
Elisheva Schmidt Susz
Hedy Bienenfelld Wertheimer