Women and children in one of the huts at Bergen-Belsen, postliberation, April 1945.
Seventy years ago today, British troops liberated the Nazi concentration camp Bergen-Belsen. In the days and weeks following the liberation, British and American soldiers took to treating and relocating the thousands of desperately ill prisoners. One of those soldiers, Lt. Col. Mervin Willett Gonin, among other recordings of that time, wrote the following in his diary:
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 those 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.
This story has stuck with me since I first read it, even as part of me doubted whether the lieutenant colonel had read the women’s reactions correctly. He was an outsider who, despite having seen firsthand the horrors of Bergen-Belsen, had not experienced them. And, to be blunt, he was a man; what could he truly know about the transformative powers of lipstick?
It wasn’t until I read Linda Grant’s wonderful book The Thoughtful Dresser—which, as it happens, quotes the same passage I’ve quoted here—that I read an account that satisfies those rather academic quibblings. (Eternal thanks to Terri of Rags Against the Machine for pointing me toward Grant’s work.) The story of Catherine Hill, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, is central to Grant’s book, and I don’t want to take away its remarkable narrative arc by saying too much here. What I will say is that at one point in the prison camp, Hill creates an ersatz fascinator out of the hem of her uniform’s dress in order to cover her ears, which were starkly exposed because of her forcibly shaved head. And when an SS officer asked her during roll call what exactly she thought she was doing, her response was simply that she wanted to look pretty. He laughed. But it was the truth: “They could have got rid of me right there and then, but they could not take away my desire to be feminine, and a woman. And my dignity, even in the most degrading situation…”
The entirely human wish to appear pretty is hardly the central meaning of what today symbolizes for Bergen-Belsen’s survivors, liberators, and descendants. And I’m wary of “excusing” my own investment in my beauty work by saying, Well, women in the worst imaginable circumstances still cared, so…. The circumstances are not remotely equatable. Still, the heart of these stories remains true: Vestiges of beauty can be powerful. They can be talismans of routine, of dignity, of what it means to be a woman. Of what it means to be human, and of what happens when the things that make us individuals are erased. And today, in remembering or learning about what happened in those camps, that’s one of the most important things we can remember.