"It's amazing to find that even at this age there is jealously and rivalry, just as with 18-year-old models," says Heli Ben David, who was crowned Miss Congeniality in the 1979 Miss Israel Pageant. Today, she guides the older women all the way to the catwalk. This week, she interviewed women who wanted to compete and heard their difficult stories.
"Because character here is no less important, I hear their stories and it is not easy," explained Ben David. "Everyone has a very hard story, of life in the ghettos and camps, of hunger and the extreme cold. But from every one, I hear the same sentence: I'm here, and I beat the Germans because I am still alive, I started a family, and I am even competing in a beauty pageant.”
The oldest contestant and one of the favorites for winning is Shoshana Colmar, 94. At the time of her release from the Auschwitz death camp, she weighed 25 kg, and when she takes to the stage next Thursday, she will sing the song she would sing to one of the camp guards, so he would give her more soup. "They killed my whole family,” she said. “We were four children, and I remained alone. Dad, Mom, all the brothers of my parents. My mother had ten brothers and one was left; my father had seven brothers and one remained. And also all of their families. So for me, it is certainly a huge victory to be here.”
While waiting for rehearsals, as their friends are being photographed and interviewed, the other competitors spend their time singing and dancing. "We went from darkness to light, we do not want to remember what was bad then, but only what is good now," one called out at the end of the dance.
Message via participation
Among this year's competitors is Hannah Liebmann, 80, from Lod. Because Hannah is blind, her daughter Sarah initiated her participation in the competition and brought her to the first day of rehearsals.
"The message I try to convey in my participation," Hannah said, "is that we are here. We beat Hitler and established families. I got to see great-grandchildren. And also out of my hardship as a woman who can not see, I try to help not only myself, but also other people.”
Competitor Naomi Isaac, 84, said: "I lived through the war in the concentration camps. The message here is that we are still alive. Though we lost our families, we are still alive and from here, I can say to the world: There were concentration camps, there was murder, and everything that mankind can invent.
Today, the treatment of Holocaust survivors in Israel is not so good. We would expect more, that it would be a little better." Regarding the competition and rehearsals themselves, she said that age is an issue, "It is not so simple and not so easy at this age."
The outgoing queen. Hava Hershkowitz, 80, helped with interviewing new candidates and instructing them on the catwalk. "I went to the competition because I realized that people forget the Holocaust, they do not talk about it and some do not even know what happened there. This is why I went to the competition. And happilly it made a big impression. People began talking about the Holocaust again. Personally, I was interviewed by a lot of media outlets – newspapers, radio. I told my story everywhere, told our story. I think it is very important to continue to tell it."
Hershkowitz added, "I talk a lot, also in front of groups. There was a group here from Germany. I speak German and I told them, 'Look, you wanted to destroy me, and I survived, I started a very beautiful family, all my children and grandchildren are university graduates. I have an extraordinary family.' That is my revenge. The event also contributes a lot to women who participate in the competition. I see the friends who participate – before they were alone, and here, they create a sort of membership, they receive support from one another. For me it was an experience, and I am in for participating in every experience. The goal was achieved and it was an experience."
And a modeling contract is in the works?
“No,” she laughed. “This is the limit. And only if it gets people to remember the Holocaust.”
The man behind the event is Shimon Sabag, the founder of the Yad Ezer organization, which provides assistance to the needy, including Holocaust survivors.
Today the organization’s headquarters are spread out over an entire street in Haifa’s Hadar neighborhood, and include a hostel, a social club and a kitchen that provides meals on-site and delivers food to the needy who are homebound. Due to great public demand to attend the event, it will be held in the renovated sports hall of Haifa Romema.
According to Sabag, "The essence of the competition and the evening is a tribute to Holocaust survivors. Part of this is the competition, of course emphasizing mainly inner beauty and character, with less emphasis on external beauty. Every one of the competitors talk about what the experienced during the war, what they do today, while most of the competitors, regardless of their hardships, also volunteer with various aid organizations. This drives the survivors.”
Sabag added, “Since last year, people have not stopped talking about the competition, asking when the next contest is. There is interest among survivors from across the country, from abroad. For us, the fact that we do this, that is a great success."
"Caring for Holocaust survivors in Israel has become a bit better in recent years, but if you take the whole, the situation is still difficult. If there are Holocaust survivors in need of assistance, it is a disgrace to the state. Today there are not many survivors remaining, so the amount needed to allow them to live with dignity is not particularly high,” said Sabag.
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