Isaac Mizan, a Greek Jew, remembers seeing the flames of the furnaces. It was 1944, and the Nazis were burning bodies in the Auschwitz death camp.
The 16-year-old boy had been deported by train from his home town of Arta in western Greece, along with his parents and three sisters. Of those five, he only saw one sister again.
In Greece, few people talk about what happened to its tens of thousands of Jews in the years after 1941, when the Germans invaded and crushed the Greek and allied resistance.
Now the rise of a Greek neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, which won its first seats in parliament this month, has driven Jews here to speak out about their ordeal in World War II as a reminder.
“I lost sleep when I saw they got into parliament,” Mizan, now 85, told AFP.
A television interview by the party’s leader Nikos Mihaloliakos, in which he played down the extent of the Holocaust, prompted a rare public appearance on Tuesday by some of the very few Greek survivors.
Some 400 people crammed into a lecture hall at Athens University to hear Mizan and four other elderly survivors talk about their lives during the Nazi killings and deportations that almost wiped out Greece’s Jewish population.
“I remember seeing the flames of the crematoriums,” Mizan said.
“They would also throw people alive into lakes.”
The subject of the Holocaust in Greece only recently started being mentioned in school history books.
Four years of recession have raised anti-immigrant tension in some districts, fueling Golden Dawn’s rise, but some also say a blindness to parts of history is to blame.
“It’s a small part of our book,” said Manos Roditakis, 20, a math student at the university.
“It’s mentioned that there was a Holocaust in all of Europe and Greece too, but they don’t focus much on that,” he said.
“The focus is on the Greek resistance against the Germans and on the Battle of Crete and things like that,” he said, referring to the climax of the Nazi conquest in 1941.
In a televised interview this month, Mihaloliakos denied the existence of gas chambers in the Nazi death camps and suggested that to say six million Jews died in the Holocaust was an exaggeration.
“There were no ovens, no gas chambers, it’s a lie,” he insisted in the interview.
He said he had “read lots of books casting doubt on the number of six million Jews” who died in the Holocaust.
“Auschwitz, what Auschwitz? I didn’t go there. What happened there? Have you been there?” he asked.
At Tuesday’s event, Mizan rolled up the left sleeve of his suit to reveal the number the Nazis tattooed on his forearm in black ink at Auschwitz: 182641.
Of the five survivors at Tuesday’s event, he was the only one who went through the camps. The others managed to stay in Greece, hiding with the help of their countrymen.
‘Silence and indifference’
Before World War II, a Jewish community had flourished for centuries in Greece, mainly around the northern city of Thessaloniki.
Jews in Greece are now estimated to number about 6,000. Since the war their presence has been scarcely visible, their story seldom told.
“This was the first time in Greece that such a big event took place, in terms of the audience, with young people and non-Jews, who came without being obliged to,” said Isaac Mizan’s son, Zozef.
Another Greek Holocaust survivor, Alexandros Simha, added: “There is a silence, an indifference among people in Greece. But now they are starting to dig a little into their past.”
Golden Dawn won 6.9 percent of the vote and 21 seats in the 300-member parliament in an inconclusive election on May 6.
“We are coming,” Mihaloliakos said afterwards. “The time for fear has come for those who betrayed this homeland.”
A new election is scheduled on June 17. Opinion polls indicate Golden Dawn could see a dip in support but may still retain its presence in parliament.
Tuesday’s event was organized by Hagen Fleischer, a German history professor at Athens University, as a riposte to Mihaloliakos’s comments playing down the horror of the Holocaust.
“We must not forget the Holocaust”, said Simha.
“The serpent’s egg is still there, ready to hatch.”