Tuesday, 17 April 2012


Today we are going to visit the Hermitage museum, it is part of the amazing Winter Palace and is one of the oldest museums in the world. Everyman and his dog has told us to visit so we are very excited, this part of our journey (not trip, journey) has been all about culture and seeing the beauty that humanity has created after spending five weeks largely focussing on the ugly side of human nature.

In our opinions human beings are essentially animals but we like to think of our selves as more than that. We use certain things like religion, art, culture, music, fashion and etiquette to distance ourselves from our monkey cousins. In a time where so many people were stripped of all that made them a man or a woman there are some incredible examples from the Holocaust of people trying to maintain their humanity. These stories are unlike the stories from Babi-Yar or the gas chambers but to us they still emotional. It is wonderful to see how people maintained a little dignity or a little part of their previous life amidst the horrors of the Holocaust.

There was a woman who was imprisoned in Auschwitz, she had her hair shaved, her belongings stolen from her, her family and friends were murdered and her name was replaced with a number tattooed on her left arm. It would have been very easy for her to forget that she was a woman, that before the war she liked to wear pretty dresses and wear make up. Amazingly her spirit never died, she never forget that she was a woman. She miraculously managed to keep a lace handkerchief with her throughout the selection process and she had found a bunk that had a small nail in its posts and every single night she hung her little lace handkerchief on the nail. Why did she do this? It's because that handkerchief made her feel like a woman, it reminded her that she had a name, emotions, interests and that she liked nice things. She said that these feelings saved her life.

Another story took place at the end of the war in Bergen Belsen concentration camp in Germany (where Anne Frank perished). The British had liberated the camp to find thousands of corpses and thousands more living skeletons. This account is from the diary of Lieutenant Colonel Mervin Willett Gonin DSO who was amongst the first British soldiers to liberate Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

'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 singly or in pairs where they had fallen...

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 relieving themselves of the dysentery which was scouring their bowels, a woman standing stark naked washing herself with some issue soap in water from a tank in which the remains of a child floated.

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 is an absolutely incredible story. It is so important for someone who has been the victim of prejudice, who has been made to feel like they don't matter and that they are less than to feel human and proud of themselves. Despite the disease that has riddles the body or the devastating impact of starvation people, want to be human. They want to be a woman who wears red lipstick, who dresses herself in fine clothes. They want to be an individual who matters. We should remember that every single person, no matter who they are, or where they come from, has the right to feel special and beautiful and absolutely no one should take that away from them.

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