JO DAVISON: Bit of frippery that gave victims back their pride

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So you think make-up is nothing more than superficial?

That women wear it out of vanity, one-upmanship, or simply for pulling power?

Then you need to read the letter sent to me by Sheffield image consultant and cosmetics designer Jane Fardon.

It contained an extract from the diary of a British officer, one of the first soldiers arriving to liberate the Bergen-Belsen camp in 1945 - and Jane often uses the words of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin to explain the power something as seemingly facile as a lipstick can have on the female psyche.

“I can give no adequate description of the Horror Camp,” he wrote.

“Corpses lay everywhere. It took a little time to get used to seeing men, women and children collapse as you walked by them and to restrain oneself from going to their assistance.

“Five hundred a day were dying; five hundred a day would going on dying for weeks before anything we could do would have the slightest effect.”

The sights he saw... “a child choking to death from diptheria; 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 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; a woman standing stark naked washing herself with water from a tank in which the remains of a child floated.”

But then this war-hardened man witnessed something that floored him.

One day, his men were angry to discover a box of lipsticks amid the newly-arrived aid boxes.

“We were screaming for hundreds and thousands of other things; I don’t know who asked for lipstick,” he wrote.

“But 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. That lipstick started to give them back their humanity.”

I couldn’t believe the account was real. That Lieut-Col Willett Gonin ever existed. Surely Jane had fallen for some chain-email?

So I contacted the Imperial War Museum to find out. They confirmed that every word is true.

Next Thursday is the anniversary of the Soviet army’s liberation of Auschwitz.

Around the world, people will gather to remember what we should never be allowed to forget; the atrocities of the Holocaust.

In Sheffield, at 5.30pm, a candle-lit memorial ceremony will mark this national day of reflection.

Sisters, shall we go there with our lips painted scarlet?

I will if you will.