"Miss Holocaust Survivor" - a bizarre celebration of beauty

By all means celebrate survival, but why must it be through the prism of women's looks?

Young women parading in bikinis, talking about world peace, and getting marks out of 10 for their physical appearance. That is probably what most people think of when they hear the words “beauty pageant”. A throwback to another age that has somehow continued unfettered, the very notion of the beauty pageant is questionable – after all, it is as close to an actual manifestation of the objectification of women as you can get.

So a rather unusual beauty pageant in Israel this week has caused some controversy. Fourteen women, aged between 74 and 97, competed for the title of “Miss Holocaust Survivor”. Whittled down from 300 entrants, each of the women had survived the horrors of World War II.

Certainly, it jars to think of judging ageing women who have endured so much on the basis of their appearance. Critics said that the contest was macabre and offensive, while the cosmetics company recruited to dress the women for the pageant was accused of using the survivors for a cheap marketing stunt. Pageant organisers Shimon Sabag responded that it was a “celebration of life” and that just ten per cent depended on appearance, with women being judged also on their stories of survival and their contribution to their local communities.

The strange disjunction of the event is illustrated by its judging panel – three former beauty queens, and a psychiatrist specialising in Holocaust trauma. There is something about it which sounds like dystopic satire.

Yet for the participants, it clearly meant something. The winner was 79-year-old Hava Hershkovitz, who was forced to leave her home in Romania in 1941. She said: "This place is full of survivors. It puts us at the centre of attention so people will care. It's not easy at this age to be in a beauty contest, but we're all doing it to show that we're still here."

Esther Libber, a 74-year-old runner up who fled Poland as a child, hiding in a forest before being rescued by a Polish woman, echoed this sentiment: "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.”

There is something moving about the women’s attitudes: the fact that they are still standing is testament to the strength of human spirit. But is a beauty pageant really the best way to illustrate this? Lili Haber, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, posed the same question: "Why use a beauty contest to show that these people survived and that they're brave?"

The discomfort in Israel has largely originated from the sense that Holocaust survivors should be spared such frivolities. The Holocaust saw over six million Jews killed, and millions of people in Israel have either lost family members to the Holocaust, or are related to survivors. Around 200,000 survivors live in Israel.

Gal Mor, editor of the popular Israeli blog "Holes in the Net", summarised this:

"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? This is one step short of 'Survivor-Holocaust' or 'Big Brother Auschwitz.' It leaves a bad taste. Holocaust survivors should be above all this."

It appears to come back to the bizarre preoccupation with women’s appearances that can be seen across the world. It is hard to imagine an equivalent contest being held for men. Why is it that a celebration of female life must be through the prism of their looks? Even if, as competition organisers said, physical appearance was just a small component of the judging criteria, there is something peculiar about setting stories of survival against each other. Participants were judged on their stories of the Holocaust, as well as their subsequent contributions to their community, adding a competitive element to a great tragedy. This beauty pageant may have been well intentioned, but it is strange to say the least.

 

Winner Hava Hershkovitz (L) and fellow competitor Klara Berkovitz. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear