If Only the Miss Holocaust Survivor Pageant Had Actually Been About Beauty

What Women Really Think
June 29 2012 5:28 PM

If Only the Miss Holocaust Survivor Pageant Had Actually Been About Beauty

Israeli Holocaust survivor and winner of the Holocaust survivors beauty pageant, Chava Hershkovitz.
Israeli Holocaust survivor and winner of the Holocaust survivors beauty pageant, Chava Hershkovitz, 78.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.

Almost the entirety of the second half of my eighth grade experience was putting on what we called the “Holocaust Play.” After spending the previous semester studying the history of the Holocaust, we wrote and starred in an original, and very amateur, production, in which I was somehow cast as the mother of a son who, on the eve of the war, flees to Palestine while his family remains in Eastern Europe.

In addition to confirming for me that I had no business being an actress, participating in the play made me extremely uncomfortable. Unlike many of my friends, I didn’t lose any family in the Holocaust. My family was so American that my saba (grandfather in Hebrew) fought with the American Army during World War II and even liberated some of the camps. When it came to reading Holocaust-themed books like Number the Stars or visiting memorials, I always felt like I could never be sad enough. Like I was always searching for the right way to process and mourn the Holocaust.  


Which brings me to yesterday’s “Miss Holocaust Survivor” pageant in Israel. Shockingly, it’s almost exactly what it sounds like: According to the Times, out of 500 women who applied, 14 finalists aged 74-97 who survived World War II were selected to compete for the title of “Miss Holocaust Survivor” based on their stories of survival and later contributions to their communities. And, oh yeah, physical appearance.

As is to be expected, the response has been almost universally critical. Most are balking about the beauty category. “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,” Jodi Rudoren wrote in today’s Times.  Shimon Sabag, who organized the pageant, rejected the criticism arguing that “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.” But doesn’t that make it worse?

To be fair, most of my knowledge of beauty pageants comes from Miss Congeniality, and I imagine this one in Haifa was a bit different, but if someone wants to participate in a beauty pageant, even someone who survived the Holocaust, more power to them. What I found troubling was this idea of competing based on stories of survival. It reminded me of that Curb Your Enthusiasm bit in which a Holocaust survivor faces off with a survivor from the show Survivor. There’s a reason that scene makes you squirm.

This idea of competing about “who had it worse” isn’t anything new. Survivors have been creating “hierarchies of suffering” for decades.  As John Leland noted in the Times last year, “There is a tendency to divide into subgroups: Russians from Germans, adult survivors from child survivors, people who survived concentration camps from those who fled ahead of the soldiers.” He’s not the only one to spot this trend. In 2010, Monica Porter wrote in the Jewish Chronicle Online that “there exists a pecking order of Holocaust suffering and child survivors are deemed to be at the bottom.”

Validating this idea of ranked suffering undermines the great personal and collective trauma, reducing it to a pissing match. Someone with a wild and far-out story has not necessarily had a more valuable or emotionally trying experience than someone who survived the war in hiding. What’s the measure?  Rudoren writes that, in Israel, news of the pageant “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.” We may not have figured out how, but this is definitely not it.



Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.


The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Sept. 19 2014 6:22 PM Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.