small things: lipstick

The Liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, April 1945. The Imperial War Museum, London

Last Remembrance week The Relief of Belsen (2007) was on TVO.  It was both drama and documentary, intercut with Richard Dimbleby's BBC footage taken in 1945.  The ambulance crew which had been sent to the prison, and subsequent Red Cross and military reinforcements were played by actors, no one played the survivors of the camp, they were all shown in the intercut documentary portions.  The ambulance crew did not know it was a concentration camp; the horror of their discovery was manifest and enormous, the task of humanitarian rescue nearly impossible as thousands died even as they were trying to give them proper nourishment, medicine, clothes and bedding.

This is an excerpt from the diary of Lieutenant-Colonel Gonin DSO who, in the film, was shown as the head of the medical team:

It was shortly after the British Red Cross arrived, though it may have no connection, that a very large quantity of lipstick arrived. This was not at all what we men wanted, we were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things and I don't know who asked for lipstick. I wish so much that I could discover who did it, it was the action of genius, sheer unadulterated brilliance. I believe nothing did more for these internees than the lipstick. Women lay in bed with no sheets and no nightie but with scarlet red lips, you saw them wandering about with nothing but a blanket over their shoulders, but with scarlet red lips. I saw a woman dead on the post mortem table and clutched in her hand was a piece of lipstick. At last someone had done something to make them individuals again, they were someone, no longer merely the number tattooed on the arm. At last they could take an interest in their appearance. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.

Such a small thing, a lipstick.