By Sandra Vassos
I would like to thank the Federation of Hellenic Societies for the honor of speaking on such an important day.
As I was thinking about today’s event, I reflected on the usual topics that surround these important days of celebration and remembrance — the defeat of Ottoman rule by our brave and determined ancestors, the spirit of the Hellenic ideal celebrated by the homecoming of the Olympics, the obvious great pride that Greek Americans such as myself feel from both.
I was struck by the extraordinary resilience of our people through centuries of struggle. I was humbled at the thought of the ultimate survival of our culture to modern times. And I felt reverence for all those before me who sacrificed so that we could be here today.
But most of all I was awestruck that in my veins thousands of years of history runs. From ancient Greece comes the source of modern politics, art, science, athletics, medicine, literature and philosophy. Our ancestors created a concept of society – of human liberty and dignity that have inspired the ideals of democracy and freedom that exist today.
These are not small or insignificant gifts, but ones that cut through almost every facet of our world. And today celebrating Greek Independence and in this year, in which the Olympics returns home, we must pause and reflect on this history and these gifts at a time which their existence is critical.
The war for independence was a war for the elusive light of freedom – an ideal that even 400 years of Ottoman terror and occupation could not extinguish in the hearts of our ancestors.
For freedom is the common thread that links all humanity – it is the sustenance of critical thought and the harbinger of dialogue. And it has been nurtured on Greek soil for millennia.
What does it [history] say about a people who after 17 generations of virtual slavery managed to not only survive, but preserve their identity? We should be humbled by their commitment to freedom – to Hellenism. To this Greek ideal that underlines all that we are today.
We know their names – Kolokotronis, Bouboulina, Diakos, Makriyannis – but there were many more that we don’t know – countless mothers and fathers and yiayiades and papoudes who silently guaranteed the re-birth of a nation. We are their successors. Wherever we live and whatever we do.
It is the responsibility of our heritage to fight for freedom wherever it is denied. Freedom from oppression, freedom from tyranny and freedom from fear. We didn’t choose this path – it is our destiny.
But as our ancestors taught us – there is a time to fight and there is a time for peace.
The Olympic Truce – where nations lay down their arms of war and pick up the arms of peace is purely a Greek practice. It gave warring nations pause to consider alternatives.
The Olympic Flame was lit yesterday. As it has been in ancient times the flame was ignited at the Altar of the Temple of Hera using the sun’s own natural light. With the lighting of this flame the Olympics returns to its home, where it was for centuries.
Accompanying this flame as it travels the globe will be the hope of all nations to aspire to higher Hellenic ideals.
The universal values of liberty defined by the Greeks as the unification of body, mind and soul infuses the Olympic spirit and projects the highest Hellenic ideals of freedom.
And it is this ideal that will once again inspire the world.
History comes full circle as it always does and the Olympic Truce “Eckeheria” is a goal of these modern games. It is a noble cause rooted in hope for all the world.
We must remember that for many people today freedom is as elusive as it was in 1821. We must remember that poverty, illiteracy, famine and terror are its enemies. These deny what we cherish.
But there is always hope and the Olympic Flame glows brightly as a beacon to hope.
I asked myself, what will our legacy be? Will we have learned the lessons of our heritage? Will we have inspired the next generation to walk in our footsteps? Will we have liberated those who strive for freedom? Will the Olympic Flame be a presence very year, not just every four?
And what can a small nation teach the world?
As his Eminence Archbishop Demetrios stated just one year ago today, “the message of Greek Independence is a message of freedom that goes far beyond a political or ethnic understanding, and encompasses the whole human being and its unique place on Earth. It is this sense of freedom that is alive and operative in this great country of the United States of America.”
As we look to our athletes – the best of Greece shines forward. We must have pride in them for they are not just competitors, they are ambassadors of hope.
Perhaps this is our everlasting legacy.
And it is the greatest gift we will have given to the world.
*** The above text is the speech of Sandra Vassos, executive director of the American Farm School of Thessaloniki.