By Lefteris Papadimas & Deepa Babington
DISTOMO -- Like most others in this tiny village that lost 218 lives in a Nazi massacre in 1944, Mina Kotsiou looked on horrified as the extreme-right Golden Dawn party emerged as a surprise winner in Greece’s inconclusive election last month.
Days before a second vote, she is confident that the rest of Greece has caught on to what the central Greek village has known for 68 years -- that any group fond of Nazi salutes, Aryan supremacist ideology and Adolf Hitler must only be feared.
Barely a month after Golden Dawn stormed into parliament with 7 percent of the vote, its fortunes are on the wane as stunned Greeks see its members in action: slapping a woman during a TV debate, ordering reporters to stand to attention, denying the Holocaust or smiling next to an Auschwitz oven.
”Those who voted for Golden Dawn did it out of ignorance -- I don’t think they knew what they stood for,” said Kotsiou, 62, who lost two uncles in the Nazi slaughter of 1944.
”But after seeing them on television, their appearance, the way they behave, people have understood what they are about.” Polls show support for the ultra-nationalist party -- which denies it is neo-Nazi and hopes to rid Greece of immigrants -- has dipped to between 3.6 and 5 percent ahead of Sunday’s vote, with some of its voters turning to the conservative New Democracy and Independent Greeks parties. Still, Golden Dawn is expected to cross the 3 percent threshold to enter parliament.
Distomo is keeping its fingers crossed that this is the beginning of the end for Golden Dawn, which -- to the horror of most locals -- even grabbed a few votes in the hilltop village where Nazis went on a two-hour rampage on June 10, 1944, butchering peasants, bayoneting babies and torching houses.
”For the people of Distomo and other villages that have suffered, the idea of Golden Dawn is infuriating - it is the hardest thing to accept or see happen,” said Distomo’s mayor Yiannis Patsantaras. ”Memories of the tragedy are very much alive in these parts.” Adding insult to injury, residents woke up a few days ago to discover the Golden Dawn logo - eerily similar to the Nazi swastika -- had been spray painted in red along the path to a hilltop mausoleum housing the skulls of the Nazi victims.
Shocked residents rushed to wipe out the offending graffiti.
Patsantaras says a Golden Dawn sympathizer was probably behind the provocation, likely angered by the furious reaction when locals heard the party wanted to hold a pre-election gathering here. Some promised to lynch them, others unfurled a banner that read: ”Distomo, June 10, 1944 -- We don’t forget, we don’t forgive. A metre of rope for every Nazi. Golden Dawn out.” POOR AND Despite all that, Distomo was in for a rude surprise on election night on May 6 -- results showed 44 of its 2,800 residents actually voted for the party accused of neo-Nazism.
Patsantaras is at pains to point out that most of them are not Distomo natives but are workers at a nearby aluminium factory who had migrated from elsewhere in Greece. He is hoping there will be fewer votes for Golden Dawn this time.
Only about five to 10 votes came from Distomo natives who were young and unemployed, says Leonidas Bouras, president of the cultural centre. Like many others, they saw it as a vote of protest against an a political class that has brought Greece to the brink of bankruptcy and an exit from the euro, he said.
”We know who they are -- they are very poor people, isolated, and narrow-minded,” said Bouras.
Nevertheless, the rest of the village is furious at them.
Over the weekend, the mayor said a leftist and a Golden Dawn supporter came to blows in a local cafe as they discussed the far-right party’s spokesman Ilias Kasidiaris throwing water at a leftist rival and slapping another during a television debate -- replays of which have dented the party’s popularity.
Still, some Golden Dawn supporters are unrepentant. In the village center, Ioannis Papatriantafyllou sat under a large plane tree at his son’s cafe and proudly declared that he and his family had voted for Golden Dawn. He was two years old during the massacre, which claimed his aunt’s life.
He rejects claims the party is neo-Nazi, preferring to compare them to a Greek hero who fought the Ottoman occupation, Theodoros Kolokotronis. In any case, partisan rebels were to blame for provoking the Nazis into burning Distomo, he said.
”They want to liberate Greece,” Papatriantafyllou said of Golden Dawn. He is all praise for Kasidiaris, saying: ”I have invited him here to the village for a meal.” Other villagers sipping their frappes at tables nearby looked aghast; a rival cafe owner dismissed the man as ”crazy”.
Tucked away amid hills dotted with olive trees and oleander blooms, the village of terracotta-roofed houses and languid cafes has long struggled to come to terms with its brutal past.
Golden Dawn’s sudden rise has reopened old wounds for many.
”We get frightened when we see their party insignia on television,” said Irini Sfoundouri, 79, who lost her father in the massacre. ”We wonder, are the Germans coming back?” Her husband Ioannis, whose sister was among the 218 victims of the Nazi rampage, is still wavering between shock and denial.
”Those of us who lived through the massacre, we turn off the television -- we don’t want to see them,” he said. ”I never imagined a party like this would enter parliament.” Locals have tried to avoid daily reminders of the 1944 tragedy: a house where the Germans killed a couple and one of their three children is now a supermarket, no plaque or statue marks the yellow and grey stone houses where others perished.
Instead, the horror is on display in the local museum, where walls are lined with fuzzy black and white pictures of the victims: peasant women in headscarves, the local priest, a groom in leather clogs and his bride on their wedding day, a plump child in white socks and black-buckled shoes, a crying baby.
Up a winding path from the village, skulls of the victims -- some just shattered fragments -- fill rows of open shelves in a small room. Outside a marble monument bears their names -- from a two-month-old baby girl to 84-year-old Yiorgos Stathas.
In her home filled with pictures of Jesus Christ, Frosini Perganda remembers the day of the massacre vividly.
A 19-year-old with a three-month-old son at the time, she hid behind a door and then ran to the hills after Nazi soldiers shot her husband through the head. She watched from her balcony as they lined up and executed villagers before a church, recoiling in horror as the square slowly filled up with blood.
Now 88, she is not one to bother with politics, but she is clear on how to handle Golden Dawn members.
”We should kill them,” she said. ”Why do we need them in our country? How would they feel if someone killed their child or father?” [Reuters]