THESSALONIKI, Greece (AFP) – Heinz Kounio was put aboard the first train to transfer Jews from the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki to the Auschwitz death camp on March 15, 1943.
As Greece held solemn ceremonies to mark the 70th anniversary of the forced deportations, the 85-year-old says he vividly recalls “the red sky” over the death camp, lit up by flames from the crematoria chimneys.
One of the last living survivors, every detail of Nazi horror is engraved in the memory of Kounio who was 15 at the time of his deportation and totally unaware of the hell of methodical human extermination he was about to experience.
Once he got off the train, at night, after a harrowing seven-day journey, the first thing he saw was “a red sky over Birkenau,” and “a kind of rain of small ashes that fell from the sky”.
“The SS were waiting for us. They had dogs. They hit us and they did not understand why nobody obeyed,” he told AFP.
The Thessaloniki Jews, often of Spanish origin, did not speak German.
Kounio, his father, his mother who was of Czechoslovak origin and his sister were the only ones who spoke German.
They were immediately selected to translate the SS orders into Greek.
Kounio says this is what saved them.
“We were there each time a Greek transport arrived in Auschwitz, to translate.”
Sometimes he saw familiar faces, but “I could not talk to people I knew, never,” or he would be beaten.
After Auschwitz, Kounio was transferred to Matthausen, then Merk and finally to the Ebensee camp in Austria where he remained until the arrival of general George Patton and his army in 1945.
Today, sitting on the front row during the commemoration events in the former “Jerusalem of the Balkans,” Kounio still has the number 109565 tattooed on his arm.
Decimated by the Nazis, the Jewish community of his city which amounted to nearly 50,000 before World War II now numbers fewer than 2,000.
Kounio does not want to talk about politics although he said he finds the existence of Holocaust deniers in many European countries and a lack of democracy “frightening”.
In June, in a shocking first for Greece, neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn was elected into parliament, riding a wave of social tensions as a result of the deep economic crisis.
But Kounio said he is optimistic for the future of Europe.
“I don’t think Europe will split again, politicians know it is too dangerous,” he says.
“I believe Germany wants power but they know they cannot survive without the others.”
In May, Golden Dawn leader Nikos Mihaloliakos publicly denied the Nazis’ extermination of the Jews and the existence of concentration camps.
“Many of the problems in Greece stem from the fact that, despite official statements, the Holocaust is not really taught at school,” said the head of the Thessaloniki Jewish Museum, Erika Perahia.
“History books only contain about five lines, that’s all.”
Addressing one of the commemorative events on Sunday, Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras called for zero tolerance on racism adding that society had no room for racists and anti-Semites.
“Today neo-Nazism is reappearing in all of Europe, aided by the crisis and the high numbers of unemployment,” Samaras said.
“That is why today, more than any other time and especially in countries experiencing a great crisis, it is our duty to be alert.”
Speaking at the same event, head of the World Jewish Congress Ronald S. Lauder asked Samaras to take action against what he called the “new Nazis.”
“The same extremist, fanatic ideology that brought devastation over Europe 70 years ago has today representation in the Greek parliament. They call themselves Golden Dawn,” Lauder warned.
On the same day, 20-year-old footballer Giorgos Katidis was banned for life from playing for his country by the Greek football federation after giving a Nazi salute during a game.
“I am not a fascist and I would not have done it if I had known what it means,” claimed the midfielder on his Twitter account on Saturday.