By Andonios Neroulias
As we develop curricula for our Greek School, we must regularly stop and critically examine why certain programs should be included or continued, providing good reasons that we can clearly articulate to parents and students alike. Just as we should not take for granted that our children understand why they should learn Greek, their participation in the annual celebration of Greek Independence Day should also inspire a meaningful conversation between generations.
Growing up in this country, our children are taught in their schools all about July 4, 1776 -American Independence Day. But, it is up to us to explain the significance of March 25, 1821, and what it should mean to them in terms that they can understand.
We can start by pointing out that the president of the United States issues a proclamation every year declaring March 25 as Greek Independence Day: A National Day of Celebration of Greek and American Democracy. This proclamation extols "the external values and aspirations for which modern Greeks reached when they began their quest for independence." After all, the ideals and goals behind the Greek War of Independence were not very different from those that prompted the American Declaration of Independence, nearly 50 years earlier.
March 25, 1821 marks the beginning of the successful struggle of our ancestors to free themselves from four centuries of Ottoman enslavement. We should also teach them, however, that there were as many as 15 earlier insurrections between 1453 – the Fall of Constantinople – and 1821, including the heroic struggle of the Souliotes against the Turks, culminating with the sacrificial dance of Souliote women and children at Zalongo in 1803, which our children learn about in a folk song every year. The countless bloodshed and the defeats suffered in these valiant uprisings did not discourage our oppressed Greek ancestors from fighting for the right to worship freely and determine their own destiny.
Ultimately, it took the Greek brigands of 1821 eight long years of heavy sacrifice and some outside help to win their long-sought independence and to establish their small nation. Yet the struggle for independence did not end with the establishment of that nation in 1832, which consisted primarily of the Peloponnese and Central Greece. It took many years and other costly battles to free the other parts of what is now Greek soil: the Ionian Islands, which joined Greece in 1864; Thessaly, which joined Greece in 1881; and the addition of Macedonia, Epirus, Crete and the eastern Aegean Islands in 1913. The end of World War I also brought the addition of Thrace, though this period also marks the destruction of Hellenism in Asia Minor – a tragic part of Greek history.
In 1940, when fascists attempted to enslave our people and impose their tyranny, the Greeks heroically fought and celebrated the first victories against the Axis powers; at the end of World War II, Greece welcomed back the Dodecanese islands. And, in 1955, the desire of our people to be united and free manifested itself again, when the Greek Cypriots took up arms against their British colonizers, inspired by the earlier Greek revolutions.
The struggle by our brothers and sisters for freedom continues today, and will continue as long as there are enslaved Hellenes anywhere in the world. The freedoms we enjoy here in our blessed adopted country, the United States of America, are the freedoms the Greeks of southern Albania and of the Turkish occupied parts of Cyprus also seek, along with the restoration and opening of their desecrated churches and ancestral cemeteries. Let us hope and pray that soon, they too will have what all people in the world have the God-given right to enjoy.
All these struggles for freedom have been an integral part of our Hellenic heritage, and have become a bright example for others to follow. This deep desire of our people to seek liberty is best expressed in a poem written in 1955 by Evagoras Pallikarides, an imprisoned Greek Cypriot teenager, shortly before his execution, in which he vows, "I will take an uphill path to find the steps which lead to Liberty."
Can we instill in our children the same fervor for liberty expressed by this young man, not even 18 years old, in his poem?
The lesson we want our children to learn is that March 25, 1821, was not the beginning nor the end: the struggle for freedom is a constant struggle. By having them participate in festive events, we are not trying to convert them to Greek citizens – even if we tried, I assure you, we would fail – but rather to make them better Greek Americans, aware that our forefathers, just as the American founding fathers, sacrificed their lives so that we may all be free today.
With their patriotic poems, readings and ethnic dances, our children pay tribute to their ancestors and learn what a heavy price they paid for freedom – one that we must be prepared to pay ourselves, if necessary. If we succeed to etch this meaning in their hearts and minds, then we, their parents, will have taught them well.