Andrey Kodin was a young Austrian Jew who managed to escape to Britain in 1938. He joined the Pioneer Corps in the early part of the war before transferring to the Intelligence Corps. On 20 April 1945 he was sent to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp shortly after its liberation. His job, as an Austrian, was to speak to freed prisoners.
Arriving at the Belsen gates, Kodin stood and stared at the pile of bodies, rotting men, women and children, their eyes pecked out by birds. As he stared, an army car pulled up and three British officers jumped out.
Two of the officers took a look and returned to the car – but one stood alongside Kodin similarly affected. As Kodin turned to look at the officer, he recognised such empathy and sadness in his eyes, that his face stuck in his mind.
A shout came from one of the officers in the car. “Come on, Derek! Haven’t you had enough?” Nothing happened. Then Kodin watched the officer in the car cover his nose with a handkerchief. “I never knew there were so many stinking fucking Jews,” he said.
Some time later, back in Britain, Kodin was at the cinema with his wife. The screen showed a close up of an actor. Kodin jumped out of his seat. “It’s him!” he screamed. His wife, embarrassed, told him to sit down. But Kodin had just recognised the sympathetic officer who had stood alongside him at Belsen. It was Dirk Bogarde, who, in 1945, had been a captain in the 7th Parachute Battalion. His name, then, was Derek van den Bogaerde.
Thirty years on, Kodin read Bogarde’s description of his visit to Belsen, printed in a national newspaper. Kodin recognised the event – but Bogarde made no mention of his fellow officer’s hateful remark. Perhaps he was so unnerved by the spectacle that he hadn’t heard what was said. Perhaps he didn’t want to admit that a British officer was capable of such a thought at such a time. Or perhaps the monstrosity of the scene was so complete that the officer’s words could only detract from its impact.
Whatever the truth, this story is yet another reminder of why we must never forget. It’s with us all the time. Even now.