This story from Rob Bell’s book Sex God formed the basis of a Remembrance assembly last year at the high school I am chaplain to. It’s a story about how a consignment of lipstick brought dignity back to prisoners the Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
In 1945 a group of British soldiers liberated a German concentration camp called Bergen Belsen.
One of the soldiers involved wrote in his diary what they encountered
“I can give no adequate description of the horror camp in which my men and myself were to spend the next month of our lives. It was just a barren wilderness as bare as a chicken run. Corpses lay everywhere some in huge piles, sometimes they lay singularly or in pairs where they had fallen.
It took a little time to get used to seeing men, women and children collapse as you walked by them.
One knew that 500 a day were dying and 500 a day were going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect.
It was however, not easy to watch a child choking to death from diphtheria when you knew there were ways to save him. One saw women drowning in their own vomit because they were too weak to turn over.
Men eating worms as they clutched a half loaf of bread purely because they had to eat worms to live and now could scarcely tell the difference. Piles of corpses, naked and obscene, with a woman too weak to stand propping herself against them as she cooked the food we had given her over an open fire.
Men and women crouching down just anywhere in the open just relieving themselves.
This account is shocking, horrible, and tragic. Concentration camps were designed to strip people of their dignity.
It was shortly after the British Cross arrived but 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.
At this time of year when we wear our poppies and we remember – it might seem like a small thing. But sometimes it’s the small things that make the biggest difference.
From Sex God, by Rob Bell
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