HAIFA, Israel (RNS) The 18 beauty pageant finalists on stage at Haifa’s basketball stadium wear lovely gowns, their jewelry glitters, and their hair is thick with hairspray.
Unlike typical beauty contestants, the Israeli women standing before a crowd of 2,000 are ages 70 to 94. And all of them experienced the Holocaust.
Esthere Gorovitsky, one of the finalists, said the pageant “gives me the opportunity to be with other women who have faced great adversity in their lives.”
Dressed in a flattering black blouse and long skirt with silver beading, she told how, when she was 6 days old, her mother fled with her and her brother to Siberia.
Supporters of the pageants say the event, which featured live performances and even a comedian, is an affirmation of life and a boost to the contestants’ self-esteem. Detractors call the concept “distasteful,” saying it capitalizes on the victims’ vulnerability.
When it was introduced for the first time last year, the Miss Holocaust Survivor Beauty Pageant elicited both kudos and criticism from Israelis, many of whom lost family at the hands of the Nazis.
Israel was created three years after the end of World War II, largely as a refuge for the remnant of European Jewry not destroyed during the Holocaust. About 6 million Jews perished while millions more were interned in labor camps or survived in hiding in unspeakable conditions.
Fewer than 200,000 are alive in Israel today.
“I’m not sure I’m happy with this beauty pageant because pageants objectify women and also because there is a sensational dimension. The survivors’ suffering is on display in a very public way,” said Dalia Sivan, who heads the Haifa branch of Amcha, a Israeli center for the psychosocial support of Holocaust survivors and their children. The views she expressed were her own, she said.
“If the organizers wanted to do a beauty contest, why limit it to Holocaust survivors?” said Martin Auerbach, national clinical director of Amcha, who said he was unfamiliar with the competition’s criteria or participants. “Why single them out?”
The pageant’s organizers – The International Christian Embassy, a pro-Israel evangelical organization that partners with Helping Hand for a Friend, an Israeli organization – said they decided to hold the pageants after consulting with Isabella Greenberg, Haifa’s municipal psychiatrist in charge of Holocaust survivors.
“Greenberg encouraged the survivors we care for to dress nicely and to take care of themselves,” said Shimon Sabag, Helping Hand’s founder. “They told us, ‘When we look better, we feel better.’ ”
Sabag said the pageant “focuses on inner beauty more than outer beauty.” The contestants “share their experiences. They share how, despite all they have been through, they have built meaningful lives.”
Greenberg said the participants “were stripped of their childhood or adolescence. The evening gives them a chance to transcend their trauma and have fun.”
David Parsons, media liaison for the International Christian Embassy, said one of the goals of the pageant is to draw the public’s attention to the needs of the survivors, many of whom live in poverty or close to it.
“The pageant focuses not only on what they went through but on what they’re going through now,” Parsons said.
The finalists enjoyed being pampered. Two hours before Thursday’s event, volunteer makeup artists from cosmetics companies applied lipstick, blush and mascara to the contestants’ faces and did their hair. Then they helped the older women, some of them physically infirm, into dresses and jewelry suitable for a wedding.
The pageant’s winner, Shoshana Kolmer, survived the Auschwitz death camp. She moved to Israel in 1946 and raised a family. She still bears the number 80277 that the Nazis branded on her arm.
In 2006 her home was destroyed by a rocket launched by Hezbollah in Lebanon. She recently moved into the Yad Ezer Home for Survivors sponsored by the embassy and Helping Hand. She brought her son, who has a mental disability, with her.
“I thank God the Almighty,” she said, “for bringing me to this day.”