It was the first time down the runway for all 14 finalists, in what was billed as the first-ever pageant of Holocaust survivors.They wore sensible shoes, and no swimsuits. Personal stories counted as much as poise.
But this pageant was of greater consequence than to serve up a feel-good moment. It tapped into a core conflict that bedevils this society, where most everyone agrees on the need to keep the memory of the Holocaust central and alive, but not everyone agrees on how.
Some criticized the celebration for trivializing a tragedy, a reminder that in Israel the Holocaust is both omnipresent and ever-contentious.
Avrum Burg, author of the 2009 book “The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise From Its Ashes,” said in an interview that “what you see in Haifa is a struggle over the strategy of the memory.”
“Will it be permanently victimizing ourselves, and whining, whining, whining? Or will it be something else: the something else is the syntax of life, the vocabulary and the lexicon of the Holocaust survivors saying, ‘Remember us positively.’ ”Shimon Sabag, director of Helping Hand for a Friend, the nonprofit group that organized the event, said it was important because “we have to remember history but also have to let these survivors think about the present. When people take an interest and pamper their outside or external beauty, this makes them feel better physically and then has a positive effect on their soul.”
But the struggle seeped through even in the two minutes each contestant was given to tell her story Thursday night. Each spoke of hunger, beatings and loss in Europe, but also of books written and prizes won in Israel. The survival theme was underlined as each listed her progeny: two children, three grandchildren; three children, six grandchildren; three children, seven grandchildren, nine great-grands.
The crown, and a weekend in a five-star hotel, went to Hava Hershkowitz, 78, who wore an ankle-length black skirt and long-sleeved jacket, her bright-red lipstick matching her toenail polish. The oldest contestant was 89, the youngest 73. Most, including Ms. Hershkowitz, were from Romania, and many avoided the camps.
On Thursday afternoon, professional hairdressers and makeup artists donated their services to help the women primp. Heli Ben-David, runner-up in 1979’s Miss Israel contest, spent the last two weeks teaching them how to prance.
After an elegant dinner in a room decorated in black and white save for tall centerpieces topped with balls of red roses, the women walked gingerly down the red carpet, many needing help ascending and descending the stage. Then they danced in a circle, singing along with Israeli standards.