Blake Sobczak

HAIFA, ISRAEL: Fourteen 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, 74, a 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 panel consisting of three former beauty queens and a geriatric psychiatrist who specializes in treating Holocaust survivors chose the winner.

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.”