HAIFA, Israel — Estee Lieber was in a bit of a tizzy as she emerged from under the blow-dryer for the final walk-through on Thursday evening. “I don’t like it straight,” she complained, wearing a triple strand of pearls and her sash, while waiting to put on her velvety black dress slit up the side. “I’m not modern. In my eyes it’s not beautiful.”
This was the first beauty pageant for Ms. Lieber, 74, who was born in Poland in 1937, was 5 when her father was killed by the Nazis in Germany, and 6 when her mother faced the same fate. It was the first time down the runway for all 14 finalists, in what was billed as the first-ever pageant of Holocaust survivors.
“I had a long struggle against death, I almost died in the concentration camp,” Mania Herman, 79, told the audience of about 500. “I came to Israel in 1951. I studied, I worked, I made a family. I wrote three books about the Holocaust.”
But this pageant was of greater consequence than to serve up a feel-good moment. It tapped into a core conflict that bedevils this society, where most everyone agrees on the need to keep the memory of the Holocaust central and alive, but not everyone agrees on how.
Ze’ev Bar-Ilan of Beersheba, himself a survivor, wrote a letter to the newspaper Yediot Aharonot decrying the event as “an attempt to harness and exploit the harshest blood bath in human history for the purposes of entertainment.” Colette Avital, a former Knesset member who was elected on Thursday to head the umbrella group of 54 survivors’ organizations said in an interview, “If it was up to me, I wouldn’t even dream of it.”
Avrum Burg, author of the 2009 book “The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise From Its Ashes,” said in an interview that “what you see in Haifa is a struggle over the strategy of the memory.”
Shimon Sabag, director of Helping Hand for a Friend, the nonprofit group that organized the event, said it was important because “we have to remember history but also have to let these survivors think about the present. When people take an interest and pamper their outside or external beauty, this makes them feel better physically and then has a positive effect on their soul.”
“Grandma, Grandma, Grandma,” chanted three camera-ready young women as Penina Plotkin, 76, appeared onstage. Ms. Herman wrote three books about her Holocaust experience, and has had four exhibitions of her paintings on the theme. She took fourth place in the pageant.
The oldest contestant was 89, the youngest 73. Most, including Ms. Hershkowitz, were from Romania, and many avoided the camps.
Ms. Avital said there were about 270,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel, dying at the rate of more than 30 a day. Mr. Sabag said the 14 contestants were selected from 500 applicants; many of the finalists live in Bayit Cham, a complex in this seaside city where 100 survivors live.
On Thursday afternoon, professional hairdressers and makeup artists donated their services to help the women primp. Heli Ben-David, runner-up in 1979’s Miss Israel contest, spent the last two weeks teaching them how to prance.
“On me, on me, eyes on me,” Ms. Ben-David, now a personal-image consultant here, ordered during the final rehearsal. “The next pair, come forward, the next pair — who is now? Hava, Hava, there will be a big crowd here, wave to everyone.”
After an elegant dinner in a room decorated in black and white save for tall centerpieces topped with balls of red roses, the women walked gingerly down the red carpet, many needing help ascending and descending the stage. Then they danced in a circle, singing along with Israeli standards.
Ms. Lieber said that after losing her parents she fled with friends when the Nazis came to deport them to concentration camps. She later helped save her sister from gunshot wounds, and, after emigrating to Israel in 1948, became a nurse.
She has three children and six grandchildren. On Thursday night, she took a tiara for fifth place.