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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A beauty contest for Holocaust survivors stirred deep emotions in Israel on Friday, with organizers hailing it an affirmation of life and detractors calling it a macabre spectacle.
Fourteen women who survived the Nazi genocide took the pageant stage before a packed hall in the city of Haifa. Each of the contestants shared a bit of their personal stories before the capacity crowd.
The event touched a raw nerve with some Israelis who saw it as cheapening the memory of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust during World War Two.
Others said it was a self-image boost for aging survivors, some of whom have fallen into poverty.
Shimon Sabag, director of Helping Hand, a private group that aids thousands of the estimated 200,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel, said the contest held on Thursday had been so successful he may hold a similar event next year.
"There were 1,000 survivors there who enjoyed the event," Sabag told Reuters. "People don't have to see Holocaust survivors mainly as a group of wheelchair-bound victims."
Former Israeli lawmaker Colette Avital, who heads a survivors' organization, was quoted by local media as denouncing the competition as "macabre".
The contest winner, silver-haired Romanian-born Hava Hershkovitz, 79, regaled with a blue and white sash as a tiara was placed on her head. She said the victory was "her revenge, showing how despite the horrors her family went through, her beauty and personality have endured," according to Shabag.
"We should never forgive and forget what they went through, but I find this a very constructive way to show these people remain beautiful," he added.
Hershkovitz, one of hundreds of survivors in an assisted living facility sponsored by Sabag's group, won a family weekend at a resort and all 100 contestants were issued with electronic distress buttons.
Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Jon Boyle