Miss Holocaust Survivor and the Political Grotesque

by on Jun.29, 2012

Mania Herman competes for ‘Miss Holocaust Survivor’


I believe this Beauty Pageant for Holocaust Survivors, held in Haifa, Israel, goes to the heart of the Montevidayan aesthetic, and why/how it is political. First of all, there’s the political event of grotesque beauty. This article is presented on the BBC under as News from the Middle East. The mention of the six million is regulated to a kind of footnote in the story. The event of the beauty pageant becomes the event to which that other historical event (the Holocaust) becomes satellite, adjacent.

So the pageant is a kind of political event in that it disturbs, distorts, interacts with what is more conventionally termed History or Politics, ‘The Holocaust’, the singular event which is recognized politically to be so singular that it must happen never again. The grotesque is an aesthetic that admits that history always has a small h, and is always happening, again and again and again…

Fourteen women, aged 74 to 97, walked along a red carpet in the city of Haifa and described their personal sufferings from the Nazis during World War II.

Hava Hershkovitz, 79, who had to flee her native Romania, was later crowned the winner of the pageant.


The 14 finalists had been chosen from hundreds of applicants based on their personal stories of survival and their later contributions to local communities across Israel. Physical appearance contributed only about 10% of the criteria

Moreover there’s the event of beauty itself, beauty and decay saturating the same instance, beauty as what holds decay to a body, and vice versa, beauty as decay’s vice versa, and vice versa, beauty queens in their 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s who are judged 10% on their looks, who might be thus seen to be 90% decayed.  The 90% of them which is not their looks is not their beauty, but is their story of escaping the Nazis. That is the part of them occupied by their decay. Their decay is their triumph. They lived long enough to decay while still living. Moreover, these women walk the red carpet and tell their tales of surviving the 20th century.  Witness becomes performed, exteriorized, something that can be judged for its quantity/quality against other bodies of witness.

The Nazis fought an political, militarized, aestheticized battle, predicated on physical power and beauty, the intact body of blood and soil, and golden youth. The Reich was ancient and undecayed; the Jews and other undesirables introduce decay/contamination into the otherwise permanently youthful body of  the state. This anachronism of the Nazis can of course itself be claimed by other parties, like Dorian Gray, for example, who had his portrait do his aging for him. Perhaps the Nazi effort can be seen this way too: they had their victims do the decay and dirty death for them. They themselves would remain clean and magnificent and have only ennobling deaths.

But in this beauty pageant, we see a merging and mixing of the categories which the Nazis would try obsessively to hold separate: degeneration, beauty, decay, weakness, the victim, the victor. I bring this up not to suggest that the pageant is a triumph over the Nazis or their aesthetic, a ‘celebration of life’ vs the culture of death, but in fact the opposite: to suggest that aesthetics are politics, that the grotesque is a politics, the aesthetic of the grotesque is as forcefully political as the aesthetics of health, sanity, and beauty which the Nazis made their standard, and that the mixing of these terms is perhaps the most politically frightful of all. This pageant is a true pageant because it mixes the macabre and the beautiful. It is the mixing of categories, the hybridity of instances, the supersaturation of any moment, text, or body with paradoxical components, which is the aesthetic and political force of the grotesque.


[And now rereading this post, I realize that just as the pageant holds the Holocaust in its orbit but DOES NOT exclude or ignore it, instead inviting it to the stage on its own terms, so the Nazis obviously could not exclude contamination and degeneration from their aesthetic. Instead they held these terms in orbit. There was the degenerate art show, and then there was their own art show at the House of German Art. There was the beautiful male strong German soldier, and then there was the wasting degenerate Jew. What makes the Nazi aesthetic grotesque is that they could not decouple these terms (and did not want to, as disgust with one produced veneration of the other).  There were even two deaths. The Death of the Soldier, and the death of the vermin. This Miss Holocaust Survivor beauty pageant in some way inverts, amplifies, and revivifies the grotesquerie of Nazi aesthetics, squeezing its vision through another aperture, like a spyglass held up backwards.]

19 comments for this entry:
  1. Lucas de Lima

    So inspiring as an inversion of necropolitics… If the decay is the triumph, it becomes one of the potent contagions of degeneracy, degeneracy having always been infectious and in need of sanitary countermeasures.

    It’s also interesting to think about this event in relation to Israel’s pinkwashing- how it markets itself as a pro-gay democracy as a way to cover up its own war crimes in Palestine. I love the idea of a Miss Holocaust as an internal contradiction to this kind of nation-building–or maybe any kind of nation-building, seeing as Nazi aesthetics are themselves brought to bear, still proven effective, as a rupturing of modernity. They’re the “old queens” who won’t stop talking about AIDS. They are beautiful monsters who show us how to be queer again. Give me this over any gay pride parade!

  2. Kent Johnson

    I’m pro-Palestine as much as the next person. But this, Lucas:

    >how it markets itself as a pro-gay democracy as a way to cover up its own war crimes in Palestine

    seems maybe a bit of a leap? Would the spreading anti-discrimination laws in the U.S. also be a cover-up for war crimes in Afghanistan, say? I suspect that gays in Israel, Jews and Arabs alike, fought for and are happy for such human rights protections.

    Incidentally, we had a version here in the States of this grotesque aesthetic not all that long ago, though there are differences, granted, in terms of “subject and agency”: Shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in the glow of the victory and through the early years of the Cold War, there was a spate of Miss Atomic Bomb beauty pageants, especially in New Mexico. In John Bradley’s anthology, Atomic Ghost: Poets Respond to the Nuclear Age, there is a photo of smiling, sexy contestants wearing swim suits in the form of the mushroom cloud.

  3. Kent Johnson

    By the way, the idea of a Miss Holocaust Survivor pageant strikes me as some kind of macabre, horrible joke. One could imagine some deranged anti-Semite conjuring up the idea up as an evil provocation, really. This is truly real?

    It’s deeply weird, if so, and would provide for rich critical theorization in Holocaust/Atomic Bomb cultural studies: Why and how, I wonder, would something like this emerge in relation to the Holocaust, whereas it is utterly impossible there could ever have been a Miss Hibakusha pageant?

  4. Lucas de Lima

    Hola Kent,

    Here’s a good article on pinkwashing by Sarah Schulman in the NY times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/23/opinion/pinkwashing-and-israels-use-of-gays-as-a-messaging-tool.html

    It was actually American marketing executives who helped in this re-branding of Israel. So yes, this also happens in the US. What is the repealing of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell anything but a way to shore up nationalist, imperialist sentiment? And let’s not forget the support that the US drummed up among gays for the war in Iraq by pointing to Muslim homophobia. It’s been in fact following the war that anti-gay violence in Iraq has exponentially increased.

  5. Lucas de Lima

    It seems to me that Joyelle is pointing out precisely how “[o]ne could imagine some deranged anti-Semite conjuring up the idea up as an evil provocation.” That’s what makes it truly real.

  6. Joyelle McSweeney

    Hi all, thanks for discussion. If this beauty contest didn’t exist, we’d all have to invent them and hold them in a single molecule of space-time as it collapsed in on itself, triggering big bang. That’s how real it is!

    Kent, how about the Hiroshima maidens? How do they fit in all this? Another kind of weird reversed masked sex tourism,reversed ‘great white fleet’, ‘maidens’ with destroyed faces climbing out of American planes instead of bombs…

  7. Kent Johnson

    >What is the repealing of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell anything but a way to shore up nationalist, imperialist sentiment?

    Lucas, would it have been better if it hadn’t been repealed then? Seems to me one could deploy your argument to oppose any democratic/human-rights gains under *any* government that might market such for its own ideological purposes. Black civil rights, too? This was certainly trumpeted by the propaganda organs of the U.S. during the Cold War. Would it have been in the interests of history if we still had Jim Crow?

    I did just see (me, duh) the link to the BBC article. Truly amazing.

    And Joyelle, fair point. But can one imagine a really existing Japanese *beauty pageant,* as in with winners and runners-up, for still-living atom-bomb survivors? Of course, I ask the question from outside, as it were, and so who am I to speculate, one could say.

    Then again, there are profound ways Americans are still very much culturally inside the omnicide of those atomic events. How does one write within that. Can one?

  8. Joyelle McSweeney

    Kent: Yep!

  9. Joyelle McSweeney

    I love ‘omnicide’. Yep yep.

  10. Joyelle McSweeney

    I mean the ‘term’ omnicide.

  11. Joyelle McSweeney

    Every man for himself and god against all.

  12. Lucas de Lima

    Kent, it’s not so much a matter of whether these laws are passed or not, but how their legislation is redeployed. It seems that the discourse of civil rights struggles is often appropriated by governments. It’s way for nations to package their democracy as exceptional. Israel is deemed exceptional in the Middle East because of its pro-gay rights; Brazil is deemed exceptional in the Americas because of its racial miscegenation, etc. But it’s precisely these ‘states of exception’ that frame and permit the abuse of human rights in the name of democracy.

  13. Kent Johnson

    Joyelle, to the best of my knowledge, the term “omnicide” was first used in reference to the bombings by John Whittier Treat, in his important Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb (1996).

  14. Lucas de Lima

    To go back to aesthetics – I think poetry is also framed as a state of exception! And the grotesque is the terrorist diva that irrupts this state.

  15. Seth

    Dr. Mengele was a beauty pageant judge. According to Richard J. Evans, Mengele selected people for the gas chambers based solely on their appearances. If he thought someone was ugly then he’d have them killed. If he thought they were attractive then they could live for a little longer.

  16. FS

    I do wonder about the format of the beauty pageant, though? As you point out, it privileges beauty less than story — but ranking/hierarchy still exists here. How does a runner-up in a Miss Holocaust Pageant feel?

  17. Kent Johnson

    Sent to me by the poet John Bradley, editor of Atomic Ghost: Poets Respond to the Atomic Age, and of Learning to Glow: A Nuclear Reader.

    The Queen of the Holocaust

    Call the Roller of Barbed Wire,
    The Angel of Death, and have him judge
    in Haifa, Israel, Miss Holocaust Survivor.
    Let the ladies, 74 or 97, parade in swimsuit
    and evening gown, and let the complainers
    complain. This is not Miss Landmine
    or Miss Klingon Empire. The only queen
    is the Queen of the Holocaust.

    Let the contestants wander down the red
    carpet, until the red carpet no longer
    wanders. Their faces covered
    with Holocaust Survivor skin product.
    Should they remember the camps, tell them
    “Always look at life with a smile,”
    until they blink and smile. The only queen
    is the Queen of the Holocaust.

  18. adam strauss

    Wow–to graft this “content” onto WS’s “Emperor of Icecream” is amazing, tho I don’t see the torquing of my favoprite line: “let be be the finale of seem.”

  19. Kim

    More pageants to the people! Reading this made me think of other worthy causes: how about a Stop and Frisk pageant? Seeing as it’s already a kind of fashion runway. Thugalicious.