By Alan Burke
---- — PEABODY — If you’ve seen “300,” the movie telling of the heroic stand by ancient Greek Spartans against invaders from the East, you might have the impression that the story ended there.
It didn’t. In the centuries that followed, aggressors tested Greek resolve again and again. Finally, after the fall of Constantinople to Muslim armies in 1453, Greece was overwhelmed. The Ottoman Empire would retain its grip on the country considered the birthplace of Western culture and democracy for the next four centuries.
While the treatment of the occupied Greeks might vary, by definition, they were thereafter considered second-class citizens in their own land.
This weekend and Monday, Peabody’s Greek community and its friends will celebrate the anniversary of Greek Independence Day, marking the day, March 25, considered a starting point of the revolt that would end Ottoman control once and for all.
Minas Dakos, the city’s Licensing Board chairman, remembers speaking Greek before he learned English. His love for this country hasn’t dimmed his emotional attachment to Greece and its people.
“Four hundred years under Ottoman rule,” he says in a voice choked with emotion. “Yet, to maintain your language. To maintain your religion. It’s unbelievable.” The stories of how it was done have been passed down from one generation to another.
“Parents would take their kids at night to a secret place,” he recalls, “and a teacher would instruct them in the Greek language and teach them Greek history.”
All that climaxed in a revolt starting in 1821 that won the sympathy, the admiration and, in some cases, the assistance of the Western World, including celebrities like British poet Lord Byron, who died in the service of the Greek fight.
On Monday at 3:30 p.m. Mayor Ted Bettencourt will honor this history with a proclamation as the Greek flag is raised at City Hall.
“The Greek community is an important part of the fabric of Peabody,” the mayor commented in an interview. “Their contributions to our community have been and continue to be widespread and meaningful. I’m proud to recognize Greek Independence Day.”
Dina Kalaitzidis, principal of the Greek School at St. Vasilios Church, will lead her Greek students wearing traditional costumes in songs, dances and poems. That will be a follow-up to celebrations at the school starting at 1 p.m. Sunday. Finally, the big annual Greek Independence Day Parade is scheduled for April 7 in Boston.
“It’s a big holiday,” says Kalaitzidis, who notes that the Greek presence in Peabody goes back more than 100 years, to 1905. “A lot of Greeks came from the Peloponnese ... the southern part of Greece.” Initially, the Greeks joined other immigrants to labor in the leather industry.
Kalaitzidis also works at Higgins Middle School, and she notes that Independence Day isn’t forgotten in the public schools, as Greek students traditionally wear the national colors, blue and white, to their classes in order to honor the day.
Sometimes, Dakos indicates, he wonders if young people have the same feeling he does for the history and the sacrifices made by their ancestors. Part of the problem, however, might be the Americanization of people here.
He recalls his youth, when it was expected that Greeks would marry Greeks. “But my two daughters are married to non-Greeks. In this country, it doesn’t matter what you are as much as who you are.”