Critics are saying that it trivializes the Holocaust, while supporters are backing it as a positive ceremony that remembers the genocidal horrors that unfolded decades ago. There's no shortage of debate surrounding "Miss Holocaust Survivor," a beauty pageant that was recently held for Holocaust survivors in Haifa, Israel. Yes, you read that right.
According to the Jewish Forward, 14 contestants ranging from 74-years-of-age to 97 participated in the festivities. These women, all survivors of Adolf Hitler's murderous rampage, participated in some of the more traditional pageant acts, like walking down a red carpet and getting dolled-up. However, they also tackled some more emotional ground, as they shared their plights during and following World War II.
The contest, part of Helping Hand's (a group that helps Holocaust survivors in need) annual "cultural" night, included a lavish dinner and music at a Haifa reception hall. Some 600 people attended, including two Cabinet ministers, Moshe Kahlon and Yossi Peled, himself a Holocaust survivor.
In the end, Romanian native Hava Hershkovitz, 78, won. The contestants were chosen from a pool of hundreds of applications, explains Shimon Sabag, the Director of Helping Hand who organized the event. The women were chosen based on their personal stories and the roles that they held in their communities in Israel.
Hershkovitz was banished from her home in Romania in 1941 and sent to a detention camp in the Soviet Union for three years. Today, she lives in an assisted living home run by Helping Hand. A four-judge panel consisting of three former beauty queens and a geriatric psychiatrist who specializes in treating Holocaust survivors chose the winner.
"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," the silver-haired Hershkovitz said.
"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," added Esther Libber, a 74-year-old runner-up who fled her home in Poland as a child, hid in a forest and was rescued by a Polish woman. She said she lost her entire immediate family.
But at the center of the debate was the notion that judging women on the basis of physical appearance -- individuals who had suffered so much at the hands of the Nazis -- was inappropriate.
"It sounds totally macabre to me," said Colette Avital, chairwoman of Israel's leading Holocaust survivors' umbrella group. "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."
Sabag, though, rejected the criticism, saying the winners were chosen based on their personal stories of survival and rebuilding their lives after the war, and physical beauty was only a tiny part of the competition.
"They feel good together. They are having a good time and laughing in the rehearsals," said Sabag. "The fact that so many wanted to participate proves that it's a good idea."
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.