Freedom or Death: March 25th, 1821

by John Kass | March 25, 2023

It was a few days or so after Greek Independence Day of 1999 when Congressman William O. Lipinski had a column of mine entered into the Congressional record. It was called “Freedom Comes at a Great Cost.” It made my family very proud.

Those of you who know me well know that my heritage and Hellenism mean very much to me, like the pride I get in referring to myself as an American. I’ve written other such columns about March 25th, including one about the “secret schools” where children learned by candlelight in mountain caves to avoid Turkish patrols, or so all young Greeks were told.

But it all comes to the same day, March 25th 1821 and the words that cut deep to the bone. Freedom or death.

I want you to do me a favor, or better yet do yourselves a favor. Pour out a glass of ouzo, just a small one or maybe a glass of red wine and lift it to the Greek people on March 25th.

You know we’ve celebrated Saint Patrick’s Day and there’s Cinco de Mayo, and Pulaski Day, and of course our Great American Independence Day and so on. Our American media reinforce all these, but does the media reinforce March 25th?

As an American of Greek descent and son of immigrants I could tell you this: I am bothered by an unfortunate stereotype of Greeks in this country. It is about the happy plate-breaking people who are so eager to please you, inviting you into their shops and stores and restaurants with a smile. And why not a smile to those you would welcome into your home or business.

But there is something else to it that’s bothersome. It was not done for the care of the people you were welcoming but to protect yourself and your family.

Come on in effendi? How may I serve you effendi? It is the plea of the shopkeeper in a land without our God given American rights. You don’t hear this other heart in the places where the tourists don’t go. Tourists don’t trek into the mountains, they walk along the beaches, sip coffee in the afternoon sun. No one sees the heart of the rocky Peloponnesus from Arcadia in the South.

That heart broods darkly like the clarinets, and in 1821 as they came running down their mountains from their villages with guns and knives with fire and sword, they weren’t smiling they weren’t eager to please they weren’t signaling their famous sense of hospitality.

They were done kissing the hand of the Turkish Pasha. March 25th is Greek Independence Day, on the way to Easter. And you can hear the pain of all those 400 years of occupation of Turkish oppression in the mournful clarinets of my people.

My great grandfathers and their fathers came rushing down from the mountains to cleanse their land of 400 years of Turkish occupation. It started with the elites in the upper middle class who thought they might win political concessions from the world superpower the Ottoman Empire. But then revolutions always start with the elite and in this one once the people bought it and 400 years of the Sultan stepping on them boiled over.

Louis Dupré, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Once the people had blood in their eyes there were no concessions, it was all freedom or death. The Turks felt betrayed by their neighbors who they lived with for hundreds of years. The Greeks found that only blood and more of it could wash away their sins, it couldn’t.

There was blood, and fire, and pain because that’s what it takes to be free. The Greeks cleansed their land of their Turkish oppressors and in the end they were free. So on March 25th I’ll make sure to wear blue and white, the colors of the Greek flag. And think about how lucky I am to have been born here in the land of red, white, and blue.

This year I’ll lift the glass of ouzo straight up, no ice. Saluting my father and grandfathers and the Greek people, my people who fought a superpower and won their freedom. And you know what I’ll say “ελευθερία ή θάνατος” freedom or death because without freedom there is no life.