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The Lipstick Effect

Recently my friend, Philip Wood from Citizen Citizen told me about a fascinating occurrence, something totally counter intuitive, that really grabbed me at a gut level. He pointed me to this article about an excerpt from the diary of one of the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen concentration camp from the Nazis in 1945. In January I blogged about “What Inspires You?” This real life story inspired me with hope.

And it’s also a story about lipstick.

Essentially, what Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin wrote about was the month he spent at Bergen-Belsen (one of the most notorious death camps of the holocaust), and the atrocities and horrors he saw there, along with the helplessness and shame the British soldiers felt in their inability to save every single person. But amidst all the misery, an interesting thing happened. A package full of red lipsticks arrived.

At first, the British were flabbergasted that someone in their ranks had thought a box of lipsticks would be any help at all in saving the victims of the death camps. They were in dire need of medical supplies, food. So many more pressing things in order to save lives. Wouldn’t lipstick be incidental, even an offensive offering to those in dire need?

Never underestimate the power of hope in saving a life. The lipsticks got out, and suddenly, the prisoners were reminded of a life beyond the walls of Bergen-Belsen, before there was a war. Suddenly, everyone was wearing lipstick. They didn’t have proper clothes, but they had lipstick. And that red lipstick, as Colonal Gonin put it so eloquently, started to give them back their humanity.

I don’t know how to integrate this information into my own obviously more comfortable and privileged life, but I do know that there is a message in this story. I’d love to hear your thoughts, and to share this harrowing yet somehow lovely account, in Colonel Gonin’s own words. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a rewarding one.

Hope in a tube of lipstick,
Amy

8 comments - add your own

24 Feb 2009
chika

Hi amy! Thanks for sharing this. I have heard of this story before and was equally intrigued, also reminds me of a quote by Frank Lloyd Wright; Give me the luxuries of life and I will willingly do without the necessities. When we see beautiful things, they say that we get the same sensation in the brain as when we find things that are essential to “survive.” It is nothing but all the pleasures of life that keep us really alive… let’s keep flowers in our houses in this hard time :)

 

25 Feb 2009
Stephen

Wonderful story and reminds us that these hard times do not even compare to those that others have suffered. Take nothing for granted and enjoy the littlest of pleasures…

 

25 Feb 2009
Amy from IO

Wise comments, folks. THANK YOU

 

28 Feb 2009
Acai

Never underestimate the power of hope in saving a life. The lipsticks got out, and suddenly, the prisoners were reminded of a life beyond the walls of Bergen-Belsen, before there was a war. Suddenly, everyone was wearing lipstick.

 

31 May 2010
Paul Nethercott

Amy I really appreciate this post. I am writing an article about hope for a magazine and I found your post by googling “the power of hope to keep prisoners alive.” I would like to use part of this story “as is” for my article, may I have your permission to do that?

   

02 Jun 2012
Jon

Lipstick makes the difference between heaven and hell. In the midst of a human created Hell (Bergan Belsen), a picture of heaven (dignity) appears. I suspect heaven is not defined as a place, but as a state where people are dignified. Hell is the opposite of this, where people are degraded into objects. We can choose to create heaven or hell now.

 

14 Oct 2012
charlotteb

This article gave me the goosebumps, i think it is a beautiful illustration of the verse in Isiah:.. to bestow on you a crown of beauty instead of ashes.’ this story makes that come alive. In that situation there was nothing ‘life saving’ for anyone to do, opportunity to save their lives would have been next to nothing, But this just shows beauty can be created amoung the horror. I wanna bring this crown/ lipstick to the ashes of today. Love the post above about heaven/hell !! beautiful

 

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