The 12 finalists, all in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, were whittled down from 400 entrants. The contestants—who were born all across Europe from France to Romania—walked the runway and made short speeches on Tuesday before a 2,000-strong crowd in Jerusalem and a live online broadcast. In the end, Selena Steinfeld, 86, of Haifa was declared the winner.
In the days leading up to the Tuesday pageant, Israel’s official government press office circulated an announcement stating that for the first time, “the public in Israel and around the world will be able to take part in selecting the beauty queen to be crowned Miss Holocaust Survivor.”
Online voters were asked to rate each of the women out of ten with a clickable yellow star.
The event was organized by Yad Ezer l’Haver, a Haifa-based charity that provides care and lodging for Holocaust survivors. It is funded by evangelical Trump super fan Mike Evans, whose Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem hosted the gala, and who presented the award to the winner.
Evans is best known for his fanatical support of former President Donald Trump and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last June, he warned that Israel was likely to lose the support of American evangelicals if it allowed “rabid dogs” Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid—now the country’s prime minister and foreign minister—to “crucify” Netanyahu.
The Miss Holocaust Survivor event has been running locally on and off since 2009, according to Shimon Sabag, founder and CEO of Yad Ezer l’Haver. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Sabag described one day in 2009 when, sitting in the institution’s dining room, Shoshana Kolmer told the psychiatrist Isabella Greenberg that, aged 15, she’d been about to compete in her school’s annual beauty pageant when the Nazis invaded her native Hungary and took her to Auschwitz.
“She felt that her childhood stopped at that moment,” Sabag recalled.
Greenberg suggested that dressing up and putting on makeup could give the elderly survivors a boost—and the idea of a beauty competition was born.
“Initially I had trouble swallowing it,” Sabag says.
“It seemed odd, women in their 80s and 90s, but I came to realize that they could do it no less than a girl of 18. It is not a competition of outward beauty, but one in which each competitor says, ‘I was in Lodz, I managed to survive and raise a family, I volunteer, I feel that I vanquished the Nazis and I’m alive and kicking.’ It gives them a drive for life.”
Ahead of the pageant itself, competitors were primped and spoiled for an entire week, with wardrobe, hair, and makeup specialists in attendance. They went to the Western Wall to celebrate late-life Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.
The most recent pageant, held in 2018, was won by Tova Ringer, then-93-years-old, who lost her entire family in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Iris Rosenberg, a spokesperson for Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, said “Yad Vashem would not participate in such an activity, but we see that the survivors find in this event something that dignifies them and that they enjoy.”
One man who did not attend is Jerusalemite Rami Ostrovski, whose mother, Miriam Ostrovski, survived multiple Nazi extermination camps as a teenager, and who said he saw an ad for the event in the paper.
He told The Daily Beast that the competition is “pathetic and idiotic and exploitative of the Holocaust.”
“It is not clear to me what its purpose is, but I’ll bet there is money behind it,” he said. The Friends of Zion Museum, which is virtually unknown to Israelis, is located in Rivlin square, a large city square in downtown Jerusalem that was purchased in its entirety by Mike Evans during the Trump years. He welcomed the former president during his visit to Israel with building-sized banners all over the city.
“There is absolutely no politics involved in this at all,” Evans’ spokesperson, Tal Marom, told The Daily Beast. “Mike Evans is providing the facilities for the pageant and he gives millions of dollars to Holocaust survivors every year. He’s just built a hotel for survivors in Rivlin Square.”
“He does good for Holocaust survivors, period,” she said. “The point here is to make them happy.”
“I cried when one competitor told me she never had a childhood, she brought tears to my eyes,” Marom said.