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'Miss Holocaust Survivor' -- honoring history or cheapening it?

June 30, 2012 |  6:00 am

Survivor

To some, “Miss Holocaust Survivor” sounded like the ultimate triumph:  crowning and championing a woman who had suffered the horrors of the Holocaust. To others, the idea of invoking Nazi terrors in the shallow setting of a beauty pageant was macabre and obscene, defiling its memory.

“It’s something a decent person shouldn’t even think about,” Lili Haber, the daughter of Holocaust survivors, told the Associated Press as the pageant went on in the Israeli city of Haifa.

Though the Israeli pageant was held by a group that assists Holocaust survivors, billed as a “celebration of life” focused on courage and endurance rather than physical beauty, it nonetheless maddened those who thought a beauty pageant was no way to honor such sobering stories. Few debates are more delicate as the horrific events fade further into the past: How should Holocaust survivors be honored?

“What I worry most about is people would say the Holocaust was just an ordinary event,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “That's why those who want to protect its legacy insist that its uniqueness not be trivialized. Tomorrow there will be a murder and they’ll say, ‘It’s like what happened in Auschwitz.' ”

The rampant use of “Holocaust” and “Nazi” as shorthand for everyday outrages has appalled Hier and others devoted to remembering the killings. Although Jewish groups plead to “never forget,” the risk of diminishing the Holocaust pains them. Hollywood has made stacks of fictionalized films set against the murder of millions of Jews, some showered in praise, others condemned as cheap distortions.

Many moviegoers cringed at the Roberto Benigni film “Life Is Beautiful,” saying that  it gave a sanitized picture of concentration camps. The Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy “Inglorious Basterds,” which imagines a band of Jewish vigilantes plotting to kill Hitler, came in for criticism as a flashy trivialization.

Offscreen, some of the most vulgar and alarming episodes of Holocaust misremembrance have used Hitler as a kind of brand, pasting his images on restaurants or bottles of wine. But even among those with the best of intentions, like the pageant planners, how to memorialize the Holocaust remains fraught.

“The better ones treat the event with fear and trembling and respect. If they don’t, then they usually falter,” said Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University.

The Israeli beauty pageant is far from the first time critics have complained that the Holocaust has been trivialized: A Holocaust remembrance float planned amid the debauched festivities of Carnaval was banned in Brazil four years ago, despite insistence that it was a grave reminder of the atrocities. A Lego concentration camp crafted by a Polish artist has continued to shock for more than a decade.

What is tasteful divides even those dedicated to remembering the Holocaust. For instance, Hier disagreed strongly with some of the arguments against Tarantino’s film. “It’s a fantasy. It wasn’t really set up as a Holocaust film. … He just set out to say, ‘We got Hitler,’” Hier argued.

When the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was being designed, Berenbaum remembered, the planners argued over showing hair shorn at concentration camps. Berenbaum believed it testified powerfully that Nazis not only killed their victims, but recycled anything profitable, from gold teeth to human hair. But after a survivor insisted that  “it could be my hair and you don’t have the right to display it,” they decided against it,  a choice Berenbaum thought was the wrong one but agreed to out of respect.

As the years since the Nazi terror have passed, the questions of honoring memory have only grown more pressing. With the dwindling numbers of Holocaust survivors and others with firsthand knowledge, Holocaust scholars fear that artists and others are more likely to mishandle history.

“I worry about it every day,” Berenbaum said.

Yet as the Miss Holocaust Survivor outrage shows, even putting Holocaust survivors in the spotlight doesn’t mean everyone will agree that their history has been honored. The arguments over the pageant have come down to survivor versus survivor, debating how to respect their shared memory.

“It's not easy at this age to be in a beauty contest,” winner Hava Hershkovitz, who survived a detention camp in the Soviet Union, told the Associated Press. “But we're all doing it to show that we're still here.”

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Photo: Hava Hershkovitz wins the Holocaust Survivor Pageant in Haifa, Israel, on Thursday. Credit: Abir Sultan / European Pressphoto Agency

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