If someone told you there was a "Miss Holocaust Survivor" beauty pageant, you would probably think they were making a not particularly hilarious joke. After all, the Holocaust doesn't seem like a tasteful basis for an evening of fun, but more importantly people who survived a systematic campaign that killed six million people have already won—and making them compete to be the "best survivor" seems awkward at best, and at worst, incredibly offensive. Yet it's no joke; it's a real pageant that was held in Haifa, Israel, and there were tiaras and everything.
The pageant was organized by a group called Yad Ezer L'Haver (meaning "Helping Hand") that assists Holocaust survivors in need. It must have been an unusual spectacle to see the 14 women between 74 and 97 competing for the title of "Miss Holocaust Survivor." The Washington Post describes the scene:
Wearing black dresses, earrings and necklaces, and sporting blue-and-white numbered sashes, they grinned and waved as they were introduced to the adoring audience. Music played as the contestants walked along a red carpet, introduced themselves and described their memories of World War II.
They were evaluated by four judges—"three former beauty queens and a geriatric psychiatrist who specializes in treating Holocaust survivors." That's quite a combination. Shimon Sabag, director of Yad Ezer L'Haver, said the contestants were judged not only on physical appearance, but also on their stories of surviving concentration camps and Nazi ghettos. Their contributions to their communities after the war were also considered. He estimated that looks made up about "10 percent" of the judges' criteria, and he said a cosmetics company had come to help the women get dressed up for the occasion.
The judges eventually crowned Hava Hershkovitz (above, center) the winner. She is about to turn 79, but back in 1941 she was banished from her home in Romania and shipped to a Soviet detention camp where she stayed for three years. Her granddaughter, Keren Hazan, was with her at the pageant and said, "I'm very proud of her because she's the most beautiful woman in the room tonight." Hershkovitz herself said of the event,
This place is full of survivors. It puts us at the center of attention so people will care. It's not easy at this age to be in a beauty contest, but we're all doing it to show that we're still here.
On the one hand, it's simple to see why the women would enjoy coming together and having a night of fun and sharing their stories. But on the other hand, there is something so cringe-worthy about judging them on their tales of surviving unspeakable horrors and then making even a small part of it about being beautiful and how one presents oneself. So, it's no surprise that many people found the pageant offensive. Among its critics is Colette Avital, who chairs Israel's leading Holocaust survivors' group. She said,
It sounds totally macabre to me. I am in favor of enriching lives, but a one-time pageant masquerading (survivors) with beautiful clothes is not what is going to make their lives more meaningful.
She was also critical of the cosmetics company who was involved in the event, saying they were exploiting Holocaust survivors as a way to promote their products. Lili Haber, the daughter of a survivor and the head of an Israeli organization that helps survivors from Poland, was also opposed to the competition:
Why use a beauty contest to show that these people survived and that they're brave? I think it's awful. I think it's something a decent person shouldn't even think about.
But Sabag, the pageant organizer, disagrees. He argued that since the emphasis was on survival and rebuilding their lives, not appearance, it was a nice occasion for the women. He said, "They feel good together. They are having a good time and laughing in the rehearsals," and he added, "The fact that so many wanted to participate proves that it's a good idea." Well, history is rich with examples of why that's hardly foolproof logic.
It is true that it might have been totally fine, even enjoyable, for the women competing—which is, of course, important—but then there are also the feelings of the rest of the people in the country (and world) to consider, many of whom have their own deep connections to the Holocaust. So even if it's not the most offensive thing ever done, it does smack of a certain insensitivity. Gal Mor, editor of an Israeli blog called "Holes in the Net," made an excellent argument about what was flawed about the pageant:
Why should a decayed, competitive institution that emphasizes women's appearance be used as inspiration, instead of allowing them to tell their story without gimmicks?. This is one step short of "Survivor-Holocaust" or "Big Brother Auschwitz." It leaves a bad taste. Holocaust survivors should be above all this.
It's hard not to agree, but then you hear the story of Esther Libber (seen above on the far left), a 74-year-old who during the war fled her home in Poland and hid in a forest until she was rescued. She lost her entire immediate family to the Holocaust. She was a runner-up in the pageant, and she says of the event,
I have the privilege to show the world that Hitler wanted to exterminate us and we are alive. We are also enjoying life. Thank God it's that way.
And, of course, she should enjoy life in whatever way she wants—God knows, she's earned it. It's just hard not to think that this event might have been better received it were organized as a simple celebration of these women's many and impressive achievements—an opportunity for them to be doted on, get dressed up, share their stories, and be honored, without having to decide which one of them is the most beautiful of all.