Fourteen elderly women between the ages of 74 to 97 were picked from a pool of 300 registrants to walk the red carpet at an unusual event that took place yesterday at a reception hall in the Israeli city of Haifa: The first (and last) Miss Holocaust Survivor beauty pageant.

Organizer Shimon Sabag, who heads a charity that helps Holocaust survivors in need, said the pageant was a "celebration of life" and pointed to the fact that "so many wanted to participate" as proof that "it's a good idea."

"They feel good together. They are having a good time and laughing in the rehearsals," Sabag said.

The hopeful finalists were invited to share their holocaust survival stories as they were judged by a panel of three former beauty queens and a geriatric psychiatrist. In the end, 78-year-old Hava Hershkovitz, who suffered through three years of severe hardship at a Soviet detention camp, took home the tiara.

Though Sabag says physical appearance was only a small part of the overall score — "maybe 10 percent" — critics said it shouldn't have been considered at all.

"It sounds totally macabre to me," said Colette Avital, a former Member of Parliament who now chairs the country's leading Holocaust survivors' umbrella group. "I am in favor of enriching lives, but a one-time pageant masquerading (survivors) with beautiful clothes is not what is going to make their lives more meaningful."

Avital also took issue with the contest being sponsored by a cosmetics company, which she claimed was using the event as a stunt to push its products.

Other naysayers wondered what sort of precedent was being set by the pageant. "This is one step short of 'Survivor-Holocaust' or 'Big Brother Auschwitz'," wrote influential Israeli blogger Gal Mor.

[photo via AP]