Monday, October 13, 2014

The Year of Jewish Beauty Queens

Erzsébet Simon was born on February 15, 1909 in Keszthely, Hungary, on the shores of Lake Balaton. Her father was the district chief medical officer, Dr. Sándor Simon [1869-08.07.1944]. He was an esteemed member of the Jewish community, son of Samuel and Rozalia née Hoffmann. Erzsébet’s mother, Janka née Hoffmann, was the daughter of Bela and Rozalia née Heidenfeld. Erzsébet, whose Hebrew name was Elisheva, was nicknamed “Böske.” She was a doelike beauty with blue eyes and blonde hair. At the age of twenty she would gain worldwide fame. 

Miss Europe, 1929

It was in early 1929 that Simon was picked out of over a hundred participants in the annual Miss Hungária competition. Winning the pageant came as a surprise to her, as she later admitted: "I don't know why I won. There are many more beautiful than I in Budapest.” Soon after, the newly crowned beauty queen was sent to Paris to represent her country in the very first annual Miss Europe beauty pageant. The competition was established by Belgian-born French journalist Maurice de Waleffe [15.07.1874-03.03.1946], who also founded the Miss France beauty pageant a decade earlier. The event was held in the great Paris Opera house on February 18, and inspired great public interest. Simon, who had from a young age dreamed of becoming an opera singer and taken extensive singing courses, had hoped participating in the pageant would help her find means to become a pupil at the Conservatoire de Paris.

Simon, 1929
Seventeen delegates from all the corners of Europe took part in the competition, which lasted four hours, at the end of which Erzsébet Simon was crowned the most beautiful woman in Europe. Reportedly, she was the only candidate not wearing any makeup. For the coming month Simon was greatly celebrated in France. She met the president and the crème de la crème of French society – politicians, celebrities and artists. She declined multiple offers from leading theaters and several marriage proposals. Returning home to Budapest on March 13, she was welcomed by a jubilant crowd at the train station. Hundreds of people had gathered to witness her return to the fatherland. A speech was given by the mayor, who congratulated Simon on behalf of the capital for her victory against the delegates of Hungary’s opponents in the Great War. Simon expressed her gratitude over the warm welcome and her joy over having glorified her country and her Hungarian people. "I'm very happy to be home again" she concluded. Someone in the crowd yelled "Miss Palestine" and "filthy Jew" at her, but was ignored. A cheerful ball was later thrown in her honor.

As the local press reported, Simon would only sign autographs once, on March 17. On this day she was publicly attacked by a large group of Hungarian nationalists, who hooted her and called her an "ugly Jewess" and "not Hungarian.” Police intervened and scattered the crowd. Later, nationalist students rioted outside her apartment, shouting slurs against Simon and Jewish people. A cinema that showcased her picture was also vandalized. After these events Simon decided to retire from public life, as advised by her father. She had already laid to rest her dream of singing and withdrew from the Miss Universe pageant, much to amazement of the world, claiming she was afraid of the long journey to America. Playing a part in her decision was perhaps also a letter she received from Bishop Christopher Edward Byrne [21.04.1867-01.04.1950] of Galveston, Texas, where the International Pageant of Pulchritude was to be held. The Roman Catholic clergyman urged Simon to abstain from participation in the competition, which he described as a “vulgar advertising stunt”, for the sake of her modesty and self-respect.

The same letter was received by another contestant, Vienese beauty Elizabeth “Lisl” Goldarbeiter. Goldarbeiter, an only child, was born in Vienna, Austria, on March 23, 1909 to Izsó [03.05.1877-12.03.1945] and Aloisia née Schimek. Having read an advertisement in the newspaper in early 1929, Goldarbeiter’s cousin applied her name to the Miss Austria beauty pageant. Goldarbeiter, who had just graduated high school, was then chosen out of 1,200 entrants and forty three finalists, thus becoming Miss Austria of 1929.

Miss Universe, 1929

Goldarbeiter’s father Izsó (Isidor), the son of Mór (Moriz) and Roza née Buchner, was a fashion trader from Szeged. Her paternal grandfather was burnt alive by rebels during the Hungarian Revolution of 1848. Her father was blonde and blue eyed, and she inherited his light complexion with the darker hair of her brunette mother. She reportedly never used any cosmetics. By her own account she was a practicing Jew.

Goldarbeiter, 1929
The Bishop’s letter did apparently not go entirely unnoticed in Goldarbeiter's case as well- she was accompanied to the annual International Pageant of Pulchritude in Galveston, Texas, by no other than her 49 year old mother. It was the first year international beauty queens could participate in pageant. Miss and Mrs. Goldarbeiter's ship, the Rochambeau, set sail from Le Havre and arrived at New York on May 11. Journalists were already awaiting the mother and daughter at the port. A few days later the jury at Galveston reached a unanimous decision, crowning Lisl Goldarbeiter the first ever Miss Universe. “I’m very happy” she told the cameras, “and I hope I succeeded in giving the proud American people a good impression about the Austrian women and Vienna.” Apart from the title, Goldarbeiter also claimed a prize of $2,000. A banquet was held in her honor at the hotel Galvez. Suddenly world famous, she was now bombarded with offers from Hollywood and other studios, to which she shyly replied “Papa must decide.”

Miss and Mrs. Goldarbeiter, 1929

Goldarbeiter toured the Europe extensively following her return. During her visit to Romania she too fell victim to antisemitism. A mass of curious onlookers had gathered at the train station in Bucharest, where the young Miss Universe was expected to meet miss Romania, Magda Dimitrescu. As Goldarbeiter stepped into the crowd she was approached by a gang of Romanian nationalists who hurled rotten eggs at her, shouting antisemitic slurs and "Magda is our weight!" Miss Romania repotedly grabbed the frightend Goldarbeiter and lead her to safety as police intervened. One policeman was seriously wounded by the crowd. The women escaped by vehicle and found shelter in the Bucharest cathedral. Goldarbeiter decided to return to Austria the very same day and cancelled their planned visit to the mountain resort of Sinaia. Dimitrescu was instead invited to visit her in her homeland. The incident made front page news in the US, where the grim reminder of the ever growing antisemetism in Europe was recieved with unfamiliar shock. Like Erzsébet Simon, Goldarbeiter eventually dismissed publicity and sought a quiet family life.

Miss Judea, 1929

Oldakówna, 1929
Latvian newspaper
caricature, 1930
The first Miss Europe and first international Miss Universe contests in 1929 sparked a sensation around the world. Beauty pageants sprung up like mushrooms after the rain all over the globe, and Jewish communities were in no way an exception. Noteworthy was the coronation of Poland's "Miss Judea", which caused a bit of controversy within and without the Jewish community. On  February 3rd the editors of Warsaw's Jewish daily newspaper Nasz Przeglad announced the upcoming beauty pageant to find Poland's most beautiful Jewess. The ideal candidate would embody, so the newspaper declared, the "characteristic features of the Polish Jewish female type". Over the course of six weeks 131 women entered the competition, of whom eleven made it into the finals. Only one blonde bright-eyed contestant was found among the finalists - miss Roma Gliksman. In an interview before the final judging at hotel Polonia started, miss Gliksman expressed her feeling of disadvantage on account of her apparent physical shortcomings. The winner of the pageant was 19 year old miss Zofja Ołdakównę, who applied under the pseudonym Judyta. She was described by the jury as bearing the perfect physical hallmarks of the "Jewish race" and noted for her "Sephardi looks." However, in a poll the newspaper ran among its readers Oldakówna was only ranked in the sixth place, with just 10,205 votes in her favor. The readers, who were instructed to choose the candidate best delineating ethnic Jewish beauty, favored miss Marja Łobzowska.

Łobzowska, 1929

In Latvia, the city of Daugavpils chose its own Miss Judea. The title went to the young Sarah Gamze.

Gamze, 1929

Meanwhile, in Palestine, another Jewish beauty queen assumed her throne. Chana Meyuchas was born in Jerusalem on March 22, 1900, the daughter of Yossef and Margalit née Pines. Her father was head of Jerusalem’s Jewish Council (ועד הקהילה בירושלים). The Meyuchas family was of Sephardi origin, and had lived in Jerusalem since the 16th century. Chana, pale and blonde haired, married Avraham Polani, one of the leading citrus growers in Palestine. In March 1929, Mrs. Meyuchas-Polani won a beauty pageant in Tel Aviv and was crowned "Queen Esther of the land of Israel" for the upcoming Purim celebration. The contest was witnessed by a crowd of four thousand.

Zmira Mani
Miss Jerusalem, 1929
Sarah Chelbi-Lazar
Miss Petah Tikva, 1929

Chana Meyuchas-Polani
Miss Palestine, 1929

Mrs. Polani's coronation was the talk of the town, overshadowed only by the passing of a German Zeppelin in the city skies amidst the holiday fete. Some even suggested sending her to the International Pageant of Pulchritude in Galveston. Over eighty thousand people attended the Purim festival in Tel-Aviv in 1929, and a large crowd gathered to witness Polani being escorted by a colorful entourage to the gaily decorated City Hall. There she was welcomed on the front balcony by mayor Meir Dizengoff [24.02.1861-23.09.1936], who gave a warm speech. “Today you are crowned the queen of Tel-Aviv, and your kingdom reigns from the Jordan river to the borders of Jaffa. This great audience bows before your beauty and welcomes you not only as the queen of Tel-Aviv, but as queen of the entire land of Israel. As is costume in Europe – you are now Miss Palestine!” The crowd chanted cheerfully "Long live the queen!" as Mrs. Polani lead the festival.

Moses and Manischewitz, 1929
Phanye Moses
Queen Esther, 1929
For the following month, Mrs. Polani was expected at a handful official events, where she was addressed as ‘Her Majesty’ and ‘The Queen’. One of her first and most anticipated duties became hosting her American counterpart, the winner of a Purim beauty pageant that was put together in New York by the editors of Yiddish daily "Der Tag" and the Jewish National Workers' Association on April 6th. Miss Phanye Raquel Moses [1907-] of Brooklyn, and her Lady-in-Waiting miss Esther Manischewitz of Cincinnati were received with great honor by Mrs. Polani, and for the coming days toured the land together. 

Berta German
Miss Israelita Mexico, 1929

But Mrs. Polani was hardly the only Jewish beauty queen in the holy land that year. In fact, every major Jewish town in Palestine had picked its own beauty queen for the Purim festivities: Zmira Mani, a Yemenite-Jew, was crowned the queen of Jerusalem, Batya Eisenstein was the queen of Haifa, Sarah Chelbi-Lazar was the queen of Petah Tikva and Dinah Avramov was the queen of Rishon LeZion. Some Hebrew scholars condemned the events, maintaining that they went against Jewish values and exposed the participants to unwanted attention. Avraham Sharon called the phenomenon a part of a piquant popular culture he opposed. The Miss Palestine beauty contest was cancelled the following year, but local pageants on Purim became a tradition.

Finally, on November 7th, one might say unfashionably late, the Jewish Union of Mexico held a beauty pageant of its own. The winner was a young emigrant from Kovno, Lithuania, who moved to Mexico a year prior to be reunited with her parents. Berta German was picked out of twenty-two contestants and crowned "Miss Israelita Mexico".

Miss Europe 1929, Erzsébet Simon, married textile wholesaler Pál Brammer after returning to Budapest. But their marriage quickly fell apart and ended in a divorce. She later married theater director Dániel Jób. Both survived the holocaust, while Simon’s elderly parents perished. She died in Budapest on October 28, 1977 and was buried next to her husband in the Jewish cemetery. 

Miss Universe 1929, Lisl Goldarbeiter, married necktie manufacturer Fritz Spielmann in 1930. He left her following the rise of the third Reich because she was Jewish. Goldarbeiter and her mother survived the holocaust, but her father perished in Mauthausen, as did much of her extended family. In 1949 she married her cousin Marci Tänzers and lead a quiet life in Budapest until her death on December 14, 1997. 

Miss Palestine 1929, Chana Polani, had two children. She died on Febraury 2, 1990 and is buried at the Yarkon cemetery near Tel Aviv. 

The fate of Miss Judea 1929, Zofja Oldakówna, remains unknown. She likely perished in the holocaust alongside most candidates of the beauty pageant.


  1. "Katherine Spector is crowned Queen at a New York City beauty pageant in 1933."

  2. Dear Rick
    Thank you so much for the interesting story and photos about jewish beauty pageants. I work at Yad Vashem Institute in Israel and we are working on a new project dealing with jewish life before the Holocaust. I would like to ask your permission to use the photos and information.
    thanking you in advance
    Dr. Irith Nahmani