Grumpy Old Man: Just whose Holocaust is it?

recent beauty pageant for women who survived Hitler’s horrors has opened a debate that, at its core, asks the real question.

July 5, 2012 11:59

HAVA HERSHKOVITZ 370. (photo credit: Reuters)


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In the late 1950s, when I was home from school because I was sick in bed, my mom would often roll the TV into my room to help me pass the boredom. I never watched anything in the morning because that’s when the soaps were on, but in the afternoon, before the rest of the kids came home from school and the programming veered toward cartoons, there was a show that fascinated me.

It was called Queen for a Day. It was hosted by Jack Bailey, a suave-looking Hollywood type with a pencil mustache who stood by with a handkerchief while women from the audience vied to be crowned for telling the most dreadful life story. The stories often had to do with children and a particular illness or disability, and along with the wrenching descriptions of homebound hospital beds, wheelchairs and even iron lungs, a camera would pan the audience looking for hands held over mouths in wordless sympathy and the more-than-occasional tear. The tale would end with the woman saying what she needed most; the requests ran from new medical equipment for the child to a vacation from her daily misery.

Other women would then be brought on stage to repeat the process, and at the end Bailey would ask the audience to show its support for each contestant with applause. At the bottom of the screen, an arrowed meter that was obviously moved by decibels more than by pity showed whose story elicited the most sympathy, and that woman was crowned – literally – Queen for a Day. She was wrapped in a fur-trimmed robe and given a dozen roses. Then, more often than not sobbing uncontrollably, she was led to a sumptuously upholstered throne to listen as she was told she was being given whatever it was she had said she needed most, but also a long list of ancillary prizes, ranging from a new refrigerator to a year’s supply of TV dinners.

It was clearly the forerunner of today’s reality programming, which is to say tasteless and bizarre, but in the infancy of television, when things were literally black and white, it was absolutely compelling – perhaps because it let you know that your problems were nothing compared to those of the people on the screen.

Fast-forward to 2012 in Haifa, where last week 14 women, in their 70s and 80s, vied for the title of… well, judging from local reports it’s not really clear what the winner’s title was, but the foreign press, which knows a man-bites-dog story when it sees one, literally jumped on it and dubbed 79-year-old Hava Hershkovitz “Miss Holocaust.” It was apparently so much a case of man-bites-dog that Yahoo’s news service offered the story as part of its “Sideshow” department.

For some in Israel the reaction was much the same, with critics calling the pageant – which judged the elegantly made-up, coiffed and gowned contestants for their beauty, poise and wartime stories – freakish, macabre and even exploitative. For others, though, it was touching and seen as a sign of respect and appreciation for a generation that had undergone untold horrors.

AFTER THE war, when Jews who somehow survived began coming to Israel, talk of the Holocaust here was almost taboo. The subject was like a deformed or mentally retarded relative locked in the basement. What’s more, survivors were viewed by many strong, proud Sabras – the “new” Jews – as little more than lucky sheep, so they simply got on with their lives (or sank so deep into depression and even insanity that they indeed were locked away).

The Holocaust was relegated so far to the back of the national consciousness that by the 1950s virtually the only reference to it came in the form of books by Auschwitz survivor Yechiel Dinur. Dinur’s works, generally described as mixtures of memoir and fiction, came out under the pen name Ka-Tzetnik 135633 (Ka-Tzetnik being a wartime term for concentration camp inmate and 135633 being the number the Nazis had tattooed on his forearm). But they often featured tales that were so sexually lurid and perverse that they might well be described as Holocaust- meets- Pulp Fiction, and many an adolescent Israeli male kept one or more of these books secreted in the back of his bedside drawer.

All this changed with Israel’s trial of Nazi henchman Adolf Eichmann in 1961. Survivors came forward and, often for the first time, told their tales. (A particularly iconic moment came when Dinur, called to testify, collapsed and had to be carried out.) The Holocaust, or Shoah, now was on everyone’s lips, and survivors began to be seen not as objects of scorn or pity but as people worthy of respect and admiration, and even as emblems of victory; Hitler no longer lives, but we do.

Today, most of the country comes to a complete halt when sirens nationwide go off at 10 a.m. on Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day, held every year eight days before our celebration of independence. Places of entertainment close for 24 hours starting the evening before, and all radio and television programming is somber and dedicated to telling the stories and reciting the names of the dead. Yad Vashem, with its archives, museum and eternal flame, is a mandatory stop for every visiting foreign dignitary. And the Shoah is now a major part of the public-school curriculum to the point where 11th-grade students travel to Poland with their classmates to visit the barracks, the gas chambers and the crematoria at one or more of the Nazi death camps.

SOME ISRAELIS think there’s actually too much emphasis on the Holocaust, that it has taken over our national ethos to the point that, even with a viable state and a strong military, we’ll always look upon ourselves as perpetual victims. And many of our nation’s critics say Israel uses the Holocaust to leverage guilt in return for sympathy and support in the face of occupation and heavy-handed policies.

But just about all can agree that we can never do enough for the survivors. While legions of them have created new lives and know joy, too many live in poverty and too many suffer from illnesses, physical and emotional, that are not being treated. Too many of them are alone and forgotten. And they’re disappearing daily.

So we owe them at least as much as we owe any disadvantaged segment of society. And if 14 women want to parade on a stage in Haifa and be judged as much for their personal stories as their appearance, who are we to stop them? No one forced them to do this, and no one forced us to look.

For what it’s worth, though, the whole idea is bizarre. Reading about the pageant brought me back to those days when, sick in bed, I’d tune in to Jack Bailey and the women vying for prizes by capitalizing on their misfortunes.

But when you think about it, bizarre does not necessarily engender pathos or tastelessness. It means something unusual. It’s man-bites- dog. Only in this case the reason it’s man-bites-dog is because these women turned misfortune into a will to live life to the fullest, something many of us find impossible to fathom considering what we know about the Shoah and what it’s become for our national identity. It’s as though survivors must walk about for the rest of their lives with black armbands, if only to make the rest of us feel better.

We, as a nation, do not own the Holocaust. If anyone does, it’s the victims and, more importantly, the survivors – not as a group, but individually. So good for Hava Hershkovitz and the rest of these women. They were all queens for a day. And if you don’t like it, change the channel.

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