HAIFA, Israel – Grinning and waving, 14 women who survived the horrors of World War II paraded Thursday in an unusual pageant, vying for the honor of being crowned Israel's first "Miss Holocaust Survivor."
Billed by organizers as a celebration of life, the event also stirred controversy. In a country where millions have been touched by the Holocaust, many argued that judging aging women who had suffered so much on physical appearance was inappropriate, and even offensive.
"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."
Pageant organizer Shimon Sabag 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, director of Yad Ezer L'Haver, or Helping Hand, which assists needy Holocaust survivors and organized the pageant.
"The fact that so many wanted to participate proves that it's a good idea."
Nearly 300 women from across Israel registered for the competition and contestants were whittled down to the 14 finalists who appeared Thursday.
The contest, part of Helping Hand's 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.
The women, ranging in age from 74 to 97, clearly enjoyed themselves. 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.
"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," said 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.
A four-judge panel consisting of three former beauty queens and a geriatric psychiatrist who specializes in treating Holocaust survivors chose the winner. Hava Hershkovitz, a soon-to-be 79-year-old, 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.
"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.
Wearing a glittering tiara, she was joined by her granddaughter, Keren Hazan. "I'm very proud of her because she's the most beautiful woman in the room tonight," Hazan said.
In addition to the contestants' accounts of surviving Nazi ghettos and concentration camps, their later contributions to their communities were also considered, Sabag said. Physical appearance was maybe "10 percent" of the criteria, he said, though a cosmetics company was recruited to help the women dress up for the occasion.
"We always tell them to dress well and look good. To think positive and to take care of themselves," Sabag said. "Always look at life with a smile and continue to live."
The thought that physical appearance could even remotely be a factor rubbed some the wrong way. Avital, of the Holocaust survivors' umbrella group, criticized the cosmetics company, saying it was using Holocaust survivors in a cheap marketing stunt to promote their products.
"Why use a beauty contest to show that these people survived and that they're brave?" wondered Lili Haber, a daughter of Holocaust survivors who heads an Israeli organization that assists survivors from Poland. "I think it's awful. I think it's something a decent person shouldn't even think about."
The Holocaust, in which Nazi Germany oversaw the systematic slaughter of 6 million European Jews, plays a unique role in Israeli society. The country gained independence in the wake of the Holocaust, serving as a refuge for hundreds of thousands of people who survived the genocide.
Nearly 200,000 aging survivors live in Israel today, and the country's annual Holocaust Day is one of the most solemn occasions on the calendar. Restaurants and cinemas close, and the country comes to a standstill as sirens wail for two minutes. Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, frequently make references to the Holocaust when discussing the threat they believe a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the Jewish state.
Thursday's contest was among the many unconventional beauty pageants that have sprouted up over the years. The war-torn countries of Angola and Cambodia have held "Miss Landmine" contests for survivors of land mine explosions, Star Trek fans enjoy the "Miss Klingon Empire" contest in Atlanta, and plus-sized women in Thailand compete for the honor of "Miss Jumbo Queen." There are also a senior citizens' pageants in the U.S.
Gal Mor, editor of the popular Israeli blog "Holes in the Net," said Thursday's pageant was well-intentioned but misguided.
"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?" he wrote. "This is one step short of 'Survivor-Holocaust' or 'Big Brother Auschwitz.' It leaves a bad taste. Holocaust survivors should be above all this."