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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Humanity’s Ever-Spreading Stain

I’ve been  daydreaming about going to the local  fleapit and seeing an image of the cinema projectionist on screen in place of the latest Hollywood heartthrob! Zalman.Nitzan.Curtain

Or perhaps it wasn’t a fantasy. Maybe on Saturday evening last I did visit Karmiel’s smart Heichel Tarbut (cultural centre) to view the film version of  Tracy Letts’s play, August: Osage County. But as I waited for the house lights to dim, instead saw an image of Zalman Nitzan, the municipality’s respected late film projectionist flickering behind the flimsy stage curtain on screen.

Zalman.Nitzan.PlaqueEarlier, Mayor Adi Eldar led public tribute to Mr Nitzan who, I understand, had served Karmiel and its film-buffs for as long as even the earliest residents dared recall. It’s said that many years ago, there were about a half-dozen  movie theatres in town but all closed for financial reasons.

But more accurately, advises veteran U.K.-born olah (immigrant), Noreen Firestone there were three cinemas at one time and before that (when we arrived) there was one in what we called the refet (cowshed) where we had to take cushions to sit on hard wooden benches. Zalman and his wife Lea owned and ran the cinema. It was where the new complex with Bank Leumi is today”.

Now, as the extended train service is being built,  the community also relishes the  development of a new shopping mall complete with a multiplex cinema. As Mr Eldar most graciously sent me greetings for my recent birthday, perhaps he’ll follow up with a Press pass for the opening show.  I’ll keep you posted!

Meanwhile, I must report that  August: Osage County is 121 minutes of degenerate self-flagellation, unworthy of the talents of a stellar cast headed by Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts. No matter what too many people say, I maintain that it’s self-regarding codswallop and it’s as well that Mr Nitzan was present only in spirit.


I’m sure that like me, he would have much preferred Watermarks,  a small-scale, multi-prize-winning documentary movie that was screened on Sunday under the auspices of Keren B’Yachad, whose charitable work aids local needy children.

The 2004 directorial debut of American Israeli Yaron Zilberman (who has since received much praise for A Late Quartet with Christopher Walken), it features a group of women swimmers from the Viennese Jewish Hakoah sports club who were hugely successful against the rise of Fascism in  1930s Austria.

The film traces the team's success until the Anschluss (Germany’s political annexation of Austria) in 1938 when members had to seek refuge variously in Mandate Palestine, England and the United States.

Watermarks makes instant stars of the octogenarian team members featured (sadly some had died before it was made) and exemplifies how an active youth may lead to a healthy, fine-looking, deep old-age. Among those interviewed is Judith Haspel who had been a record-setting swimmer selected to represent Austria in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. She refused to go and was stripped of her records and banned from further competition. Her records were not reinstated until 1995. The movie ends with eight of the surviving team  returning to Vienna 65 years later for a reunion swim at their old pool, dressed in their club gear!


But the beauty of this compelling piece of art lies as much in its background as in what foreground it displays:

The story really begins much earlier in 1909 after the Austrian government passed the “Aryan Paragraph" law forbidding sports clubs from accepting Jewish members. So Jewish athletes responded by forming the "Hakoah Vienna" sports organisation which sought, not only to give members a place to go, but a means to combat and and confront the stereotypes of (Austrian) Jews being intellectual giants but physical weaklings. The word hakoah means ‘strength’ in Hebrew  and many club members became champions in various sports in Austria and throughout Europe. Indeed, the soccer team roundly defeated the U.K.’s West Ham United F.C. at an exhibition match in 1924. Watermarks.Athletes

However, the  most successful athletes were the women swimmers who not only dominated the sport in Vienna but became the core of Austria's 1936 Olympics team, when the games were due to be held in Germany. When some refused to go, their stance was viewed as a propaganda triumph for Hitler. Then after the Anschluss, Hakoah could no longer operate and this is when the records of many of its athletes were obliterated.

Zilberman’s personal triumph is not only in reuniting these remarkable women or even in encouraging them to recall their painful past. It is the restrained gentility with which he conveys the nauseating awfulness of what had developed, continued to occur and will forever happen to the world’s Jews - Israel or no Israel.

How else to explain the girl whose parents were snobbish enough to try to stop her joining Hakoah but were eventually forced to join her in Palestine? What other reason for the terrifying, hate-filled, silent reception that the Hakoah team received during the pre-Olympic Games torch bearing ceremony when other teams had received rapturous ovations? What logic otherwise in filming the old ladies sitting trapped in a Viennese club during their reunion visit while being serenaded by someone performing the  Buchenwald Song, something its  composers, Fritz Beda-Löhner and Hermann Leopoldi,  had been forced to write as a marching song for their fellow concentration camp inmates?

This is when I decided, against all persuasion, I would never visit Vienna, enjoy its culture or devour its dainty cakes. Who knows what pots of poison may be set for my unwary delectation?

But let me end on a happier note: Not only has Zilberman’s film won prizes, it has been screened scores of times to benefit great Jewish and Israeli causes. This should be  no surprise: 

Moj and Robert DanialMarsha Kolman, a former long-serving Director of the Women's Division at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation and now a Karmieli says: “One of my presidents of the Women's Division was Iraqi-born Moj Danial. She and her husband, Robert were producers of the movie and we showed it in Miami to several groups and raised money for the annual campaign with the showings. I've seen it many, many times and it still brings tears to my eyes - it is such a beautiful story and all the women on the swim team are just remarkable people”. So it was Marsha who was instrumental in Keren B’Yachad bringing Watermarks to Karmiel for Sunday’s screening.

  • I close with thanks to Alex Huber,  Karmiel city’s official   photographer for permission to reproduce his pictures of the tribute to Zalman Nitzan and also to Marsha Kolman and Noreen Firestone for their enthusiastic contributions to this piece.

© Natalie Wood (18 February 2014)

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