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Holocaust survivor Chana Harel, 90, gets her make-up and hair done for  'Miss Holocaust Survivor 2021', a beauty pageant held at  Jerusalem's Friends of Zion Museum to honour ten Holocaust survivor women between the ages of 79 and 90. Photo by Alejandro Ernesto/Picture Alliance via Getty Images.

Out of Darkness, Into (Exceedingly Garish) Light: There She Is, Miss Holocaust Survivor

Abby Zimet

We...can't...even. But they evidently could. Teetering queasily, precariously between a lofty "celebration of life" and a macabre "one step short of Big Brother Auschwitz," organizers of "Miss Holocaust Survivor 2021" this week crowned the newest winner of a jubilant if surreal annual Israeli beauty pageant touted as a chance for survivors of the Nazi genocide to "tell their stories" - from death marches to concentration camps - albeit after being primped, coiffed and slathered with make-up by a cosmetics company discreetly happy for the opportunity to hawk their likely-animal-tested wares. This year's winner - Salina Steinfeld, an 86-year-old great-grandmother who survived Nazi attacks in her native Romania before moving to Israel in 1948 - was chosen from ten finalists out of several hundred stalwart women aged 79 to 90 born across Europe. After a luxurious week of being pampered in Jerusalem, the contestants (carefully) strutted the catwalk Tuesday in their sequins and sashes at the Friends of Zion Museum, which supports "the Zionist dream (to) restore God's Chosen People to their historic homeland" and recount the stories of "the brave Christian Zionists who assisted them." It also serves as a platform to fight the BDS movement and "anti-Semitism," which you def get the feeling they kinda conflate, all while citing Theodore Herzl's dictate, "If you will it, it is no dream." The museum is owned by Mike Evans, a right-wing Evangelical Christian Zionist who, when Trump visited Israel, girlishly welcomed him with building-sized banners across the city; in a fortuitous  coincidence, Evans also runs Yad Ezer l’Haver, a charity that cares for Holocaust survivors and has organized the pageant since 2009, after a resident recalled how, at 15, she'd been about to enter her school's beauty pageant when the Nazis invaded her native Hungary and "her childhood stopped at that moment."

In a country where almost 200,000 survivors of a genocide of six million live, organizers like to cite that sort of seminal moment to  argue the event honors a dwindling number of Jews who lost their youth to the war - "out of darkness, into light" - and shows "how much we love and appreciate them" by kitschily dressing them up and parading them around. For critics to whom "the words 'beauty pageant' and 'holocaust survivor' in one sentence seems...a bit odd," they say they're not judging them by their "beauty" as much as their contributions in later life, their harrowing accounts of ghettos, camps, a death march at five that killed their grandmother, their ability to, "Always look at life with a smile and continue to live." And if war-torn countries like Cambodia have held "Miss Landmine" survivors contests, what's wrong with a slightly tacky serenading of 2016's winner with "Pretty Woman"? A lot, say many aggrieved at the ploy of using a cheap gimmick to honor true strengths and remarkable stories. Rami Ostrovsky, whose mother Miriam survived multiple death camps, calls the event "pathetic and idiotic and exploitative." "Why use a beauty contest to show these people survived and they're brave?" asks another child of survivors. From an Israeli editor: "This is one step short of 'Survivor-Holocaust' or 'Big Brother Auschwitz.' It leaves a bad taste." It got even worse this year, when for the first time Israel's press office announced people could vote online for their fave "beauty queen" - by clicking on a Yellow Star. Oy. From Twitter: "What season of 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' is this from?" One of this year's contestants was Kuka Palmon, an 87-year-old great-grandmother who survived a pogrom in her native Romania. "And yet here I am, at this great age," she said. "It's a godly thing. It is indescribable." Yes. It is.


Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, hauling water and writing before moving to Portland. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. 

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