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Reflections of a working writer and reader




On the Banksy website there was a section called Manifesto which quoted an extract from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO, who was among the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945. The extract was rather lengthy and much of it fairly tough-going, but Willett Gonin notes, eventually, the arrival in the camp of a very large quantity of lipstick.

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.

Neither Willett Gronin nor Banksy remind us that most of the liberators and relief workers at the camp had great difficulty in recognizing the female internees as women.

The Nazis had successfully stripped them, almost entirely, of a meaningful sense of identity. The liberators were completely unprepared for what faced them inside the gates of the camp. And even with the evidence of their own eyes, many of the liberators were so traumatized that they could not overcome their own preconceptions. The image of humanity was so twisted and distorted that it had become unrecognizable.

In these circumstances it is not surprising that those women welcomed the protective mask of lipstick and clothing.

13 Responses to “Lipstick”

  1. Fiona says:

    Horribly, ridiculously poignant.

  2. Dick says:

    Poignant indeed. Thanks for this, John.

  3. richard says:

    A macabre vision, but one which I see not as a restoration of humanity but a victory of conformity.

    Despite all they had been through, rather than asserting their dignity and humanity, they choose instead to showcase their lips. After all, what more is a woman?

    We seek to understand why people could so unquestioningly play the roles necessary to commit such atrocities – in my mind, those women and their lipstick are a chilling reminder.

  4. Anna says:

    This brings strong images to hold in the mind – rather like grey photos that feature the emphasis of “a touch of red”.

    I knew two old Quaker sisters who went in with the liberation team at Belsen, they would not be drawn much on what they did. One thing they mentioned was that soap was as important as food there, they washed very weak people as tenderly as they could and the reaction was wonderful to see.

  5. john baker says:

    That’s more or less the image that Banksy saw, and painted. You can see the reproduction on his site.
    Bergen-Belsen was rife with typhoid fever and typhus when the British troops arrived. So much so that another thirteen thousand people died of disease and starvation after the liberation.
    Some British soldiers claimed that, when they first entered the camp, the stench of the ten thousand rotting, naked, unburied bodies, could be smelled ten miles away.
    The prisoners had been without food and water for a week, and there were no medical supplies.

  6. the narrator says:

    As the descendant of a concentration camp liberator who never really slept through a night again, well, these clearly were not images easily shaken…

  7. Paula says:

    Chilling and poignant, John. No matter the amount of material I have read on such atrocities, every time I shiver and think: this can’t have happened, we “humans” can’t be like this.

  8. karina says:

    Is there a book made of the diary, I would like to read some more.

    jb says: The source is The Imperial War Museum in the UK. They may know about published material.

  9. AndrewE says:

    I find paradoxes here, within these comments, these ideas, these images and within my own thoughts.

    London. In times of peace. I look at people in the street, women’s faces, men’s faces. I see body modifcations, multiplying, painted faces, defects, masks, non-conform traits hidden; the individual endeavour of disguising his/her humanity, to wrap essence in superficiality, to conform, to be individually communal, this I cannot comprehend.

    Bergen-Belsen. In a time of oppression. These brutalised women, destitute, locked up like cattle, stripped down to the surface of their humanity – flesh, bone, no words, no ‘I’, left to rot. That these women should choose to paint their lips, this I can somewhow relativise.

  10. Mike Wood says:

    You may be interested in this poem on the subject:

    Women released from the prison camp by the allies were given a lipstick each

    They tell me that I’m free…
    Can that mean me?

    Free from starvation?
    Free from degradation?
    Free to wear clothes?
    Free to choose foods?
    Free to see the green
    Of trees that wave free in the liberated breeze?
    Green in the glow of freedom,
    Free to explore the full spectrum of colour once again?
    Not just the dull lacklustre grey
    Of walls, of flesh, of food, of death
    That lies splayed in the limbstrewn limepits.
    Fresh in the dumbness of disbelief….
    I’m offered a single scarlet stem of truth –
    A lipstick so that my lips, grown thin with the lies of survival
    May begin once again to glow
    In the radiance of my redemption!

    jb says: Thanks Mike. And you don’t have a website?

  11. Glow Straws says:

    Quite interesting!! You seem to be a person with a different view to life which is nice to see. I hope you continue to stay off the beaten track.

  12. Cathy @ 3 at 1 Copying says:

    I absolutely love Anna’s comment, it does remind one of grey photo’s and red lips and things like post card and posters something out of a western more like it.

  13. A truly inspiring story about Belsen | Artisan Marketing Communications says:

    […] Thanks to John Baker (no relation) for talking about this episode and Banksy for alerting me to it. […]