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The youngest contestant was aged 74 and the oldest 97. Billed by organizers as a celebration of life, the event 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, chairman 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.
Nearly 300 women from across Israel registered for the competition and contestants were whittled down to the 14 finalists who appeared on Thursday.
"This place is full of survivors. It puts us at the center 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," the silver-haired Hershkovitz said. Wearing a glittering tiara, she was joined by her granddaughter, Keren Hazan. "I'm very proud of her because she's the most beautiful woman in the room tonight," Hazan said.
In addition to the contestants' accounts of surviving Nazi ghettos and concentration camps, their later contributions to their communities were also considered, Sabag said. Physical appearance was maybe "10 percent" of the criteria, he said, though a cosmetics company was recruited to help the women dress up for the occasion. "We always tell them to dress well and look good. To think positive and to take care of themselves," Sabag said. "Always look at life with a smile and continue to live."
Nearly 200,000 aging survivors live in Israel today, and the country's annual Holocaust Day is one of the most solemn occasions on the calendar. Restaurants and cinemas close, and the country comes to a standstill as sirens wail for two minutes. Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, frequently make references to the Holocaust when discussing the threat they believe a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the Jewish state.