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.