The dressing room at the Heichal HaSport Romema arena, in Haifa, Israel, is buzzing.
Make-up artists and stylists flutter around, trying to locate hair straighteners and brushes as they ready beauty contestants for their moment of fame. Towering hairdos are fixed and sparkling new gowns removed from their cellophane.
As well as locals, the 18 finalists primping and preening before they head onstage in front of a 2,000-strong crowd include contestants from the United States, Canada, France, Britain and Belgium.
But this is no ordinary beauty pageant; the contestants are aged between 70 and 94 and they are all survivors of the Holocaust, the mass murder of Jews by Nazi Germany.
Now in its second year, this unconventional contest, which was held on August 22, focuses on inner beauty and strength rather than physical appearance, according to its organiers. The event is the brainchild of Isabella Greenberg, Haifa’s municipal psychiatrist in charge of Holocaust survivors, who has long encouraged her patients to dress up in order to feel good about themselves.
“Fifty per cent of overcoming your past is … this,” she says of the thinking behind the event, which is contested by women chosen mainly for the experiences they have endured.
“All women who are now participating were young women during the Holocaust and this youth was taken away. When they stand on the stage they can regenerate that feeling [of being young],” says Shimon Sabag, founder and manager of the Haifa Home for Holocaust Survivors, which cares for about 80 men and women. The home is run by Yad Ezer L’Haver, an organisation that has partnered with the evangelical International Christian Embassy Jerusalem (ICEJ) to stage the pageant.
“We originally wanted the competition in a smaller place,” says Sabag, “but because so many people were interested in it we found we needed a bigger venue.”
The pageant begins with speeches from dignitaries, including the mayor of Haifa, before a comedian regales the audience with impressions of President Shimon Peres.
The atmosphere backstage is becoming tense.
“My victory is to stand here in front of everybody, smile to the world and show them I’m alive,” Alaya Pitousi, a 75-year-old from Tunisia, tells me.
The women emerge from the side of the stage in a line: tall, short, plump, skinny. After each contestant is introduced – identity cards listing name, age, home country and message to the world are projected onto a screen – they are called on one by one to strut their stuff.
The women stroll the catwalk in slow, poised strides, some struggling to mask the odd limp or stumble, before twirling their hands in a little wave and disappearing to rejoin the group.
Watching them do their thing is a panel of equally well made-up judges, including cosmetics queen and former model Pnina Rosenblum and media personality Judy Shalom Nir-Mozes. The judges clap loudly as each contestant is announced. This may be a competition, but it’s not one Simon Cowell would feel at home judging; the cattiness seen in reality shows such as American Idol is replaced here with tender, motherly applause and there is a palpable camaraderie between the contestants and the audience, many of whom lived through the Holocaust themselves.
After an intermission – during which a comedian and singers take the stage, making jokes about Israeli public figures and singing traditional songs in Yiddish and Hebrew – there is the final judging. The host, conductor, composer and comedian Nancy Brandes, calls each contestant back up, one by one, for a bit of banter and to ask them about their lives.
Naomi Itzik walks forward with her back straight, head held high.
“I am 84½,” she answers to Brandes’ first question, in Hebrew.
Her message? “Whatever time we still have we want to live in dignity. All the memories of the Holocaust will accompany us until the day we die. It is unthinkable that it should ever happen again.”
Itzik was 15 when she was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp from her home in Warsaw, Poland, and what she doesn’t tell Brandes is that her most traumatic memory involved witnessing an SS woman named Irma Grese grab a baby from its mother, take hold of its legs and hurl it against a wall. (Grese would be sentenced to death in 1945, at the Belsen Trial, for her many sadistic acts.) This detail is whispered to me by the man I’m sitting next to in the audience.
For the finale, flowers, tiaras and sashes are brought up through a cloud of balloons and confetti as the three finalists are announced. The fanfare then builds before Shoshana Kolmer is declared Miss Holocaust Survivor 2013.
The 94-year-old, originally from Czechoslovakia, materialises from the crowd on the stage and her tiara is placed lopsidedly on thinning hair.
A toothy grin cracks the wrinkles on her face but she remains almost speechless, seemingly overwhelmed by all the fuss.
KOLMER IS ANOTHER SURVIVOR of Auschwitz, where about a million perished in the 1940s. On her arm, she still bears her prison tattoo number: 80277. From Auschwitz, she was sent to another concentration camp on a four-day “death march”, in snow and temperatures that dipped below minus-19 degrees Celsius.
“Today none of my family throws away a piece of bread because everyone knows what I suffered from in the camps. We didn’t have bread, we ate from the garbage,” Kolmer said onstage, in her question and answer session.
In 2006, after having moved to Israel, her home was destroyed by a Hezbollah-launched rocket fired from Lebanon while she was standing in the stairwell reading psalms. She came out unscathed but now lives in the Haifa Home for Holocaust Survivors.
Each of the women has her own story of survival during some of humanity’s darkest days.
“It would be wrong to compare this with an official beauty contest,” says Jurgen Buhler, executive director of ICEJ. “It’s more of a symbolic gesture, to be able to live again through the time of their youth. It’s not just about a celebration of simple beauty.
“When you make this under the whole context of [the] Holocaust it makes you aware that every single contestant tonight literally went through hell. In a way it’s a celebration of their survival.”
About six million Jews – two-thirds of the total number in Europe before the second world war – were murdered by the Nazis. As those who survived the war age, their numbers are dwindling. There are fewer than 200,000 living in Israel today.
According to Buhler, the definition of a Holocaust survivor is someone who lived in a place under Nazi rule when persecution was taking place.
This includes those who were sent to prison camps and those who survived by hiding or fleeing from the oppression.
Pitousi was only five when the Germans invaded her city, Tunis, in 1942. They took the men to forced labour camps and painted yellow Stars of David on the Jewish homes. She survived by hiding in a barn among cows for six months, living on milk and dried bread that was thrown in for the chickens.
Ninety-year-old Genia Schwartzbart, a Pole who is participating in the contest for the second time, says she faced death by the Nazis three times. She and her mother worked in a silk factory before fleeing to Odessa, where they were received as refugees. In 1941, when the Germans invaded the Ukrainian city, bombing the area and poisoning its water supplies, they decided to flee again. They took a train to Uzbekistan, where they lived on a communal farm. After Schwartzbart’s mother died of dysentery, she spent three years on the move, sleeping wherever she could find a place to lay her head. In 1946, she moved to a Jewish kibbutz in Poland, where she stayed for 10 years before coming to Israel.
“You should never get desperate when it’s difficult to continue; you should fight because life is stronger than everything,” she says. “It’s important to look beautiful and take care of yourself for those who are still with us and those who are not with us anymore.”
Hannah Moche is hovering around the backstage buffet table when she tells me about seeing something no three-year-old should ever have to witness.
“We were hiding in the garden underneath the bush [as bombs rained down],” says the 78-year-old, who lived in Warsaw when it came under German attack. “My grandmother, who raised me, saw that I didn’t have enough clothes, so she ran home to get some. As she was coming back, there was another bomb – I saw her explode.”
PERHAPS UNSURPRISINGLY, a beauty contest for elderly women who have “lived through hell” has stirred up controversy. When it was launched last year, critics labelled the concept “macabre” and “obscene”.
“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,” Dalia Sivan, of Holocaust survivors’ charity Amcha, told USA Today.
Although the sceptics have been quieter this year, concern lingers over the true purpose of the event.
Sabag defends the concept by saying that pampering the survivors, who arrive at the event in limousines and are given fine clothing and make-up donated by Israeli cosmetic companies, helps them feel beautiful and valued.
“When we did it for the first time we were a little careful as to how to approach it,” says Buhler. “We didn’t know what to think about it and we were a bit hesitant at first. We didn’t know how it would fit to have Holocaust survivors in the context of a beauty contest.
“We came last year and we saw the joy and release it gave to the Holocaust survivors. It gave them a chance to relive their youth and gave them something they couldn’t do in their youth. After the tears of joy in the evening we knew it was the right thing to do.”
According to David Parsons, media liaison for ICEJ, another goal of the pageant is to draw the public’s attention to the survivors’ needs today – some live below the poverty line and have health problems and high medical bills.
This isn’t the first time a beauty pageant has been held to bring attention to an issue. In Cambodia, where there are up to 44,000 people living with injuries inflicted by landmines laid during the civil war of the 70s, the Miss Landmine beauty pageant is held to highlight the struggles they face.
While some might see it as a ghoulish display of ageing beauty, others view the Miss Holocaust Survivor pageant as a chance for women whose youth was taken from them, and whose lives have never been the same since, to have a moment in the spotlight – even if it has come more than six decades late.