Overcoming Provincialism in Ethnic Vitality Struggle

In a recent column published in the newspaper Dimokratia, Savas Kalenderides touched on the huge responsibility that Hellenes have to preserve their cultural and ethnic vitality, as well as their territorial integrity, by remembering the contribution of the proud people of Crete to the Macedonian Struggle. The Macedonian Struggle began in 1870 following Bulgarian encroachment, and by 1897 it was characterized by intense propagandistic action. Between 1904-1908, Greeks engaged in armed clashes against the Bulgarians and Turks, coupling the battles taking place on the political and diplomatic level.

By 1908, new Hellenic and Bulgarian groups entered the struggle, stabilizing their positions throughout the Macedonian region.

The Macedonian Struggle theoretically ended with the disbanding of the “Pan-Hellenic Organization” in August 1909, which – despite the casualties and financial sacrifice – proved priceless for the Hellenism of Northern Greece.

What is particularly astounding about the contribution of the Cretan people to the liberation of Macedonia is the fact that although their native island of Crete had not yet itself been freed, it produced a significant number of volunteer soldiers who sacrificed their lives and livelihoods to fight for a land with which they had relatively little geographical connection. Records indicate that some three thousand men left behind their families and homes in Crete and flocked to this unknown land, which was still under the Ottoman yoke, to safeguard it from Bulgarian advances. The protection offered against the Bulgarian agents and armed bands laid the groundwork for the subsequent liberation of Macedonia and Thrace in 1912-1913 – whose centennial was just celebrated this past year.

The statistics are staggering and testify to the patriotism and self-sacrifice that inspired the Cretans to help defend their fellow Hellenes’ land. Kalenderides cites that out of the 6,000 volunteers who fought in the Macedonian Struggle, half were from Crete, including two of the three generals, 19 of the 82 commanders of the corps, and 14 of the 19 leaders of private divisions.

In addition to the brave example of the chieftains, which has been amply documented, Kalenderides points out that there were also many common villagers who sold all their belongings to purchase weapons, leaving behind their families so they could go and fight in Macedonia.

One such example was that of Georgios Gaganis of Atsipopoulo, Rethymno, who sold his only plot of land to buy a weapon and make the trip to Macedonia to join in the Struggle. Upon his return to Crete, he was hailed as a hero, but was financially destitute and forced to make a living as a town crier for the remainder of his life.

In total, 769 Cretan volunteers died in the Macedonian struggle – including 13 chieftains and 12 clan leaders.

This is a particularly noteworthy story because Crete did not officially gain its freedom until the conclusion of the Balkan Wars in 1913, when its de jure annexation to Greece took place. Despite this, however, the courageous people of Crete still showed the magnanimity and courage to help their Macedonian brethren defend their land, in what amounts to an amazing example of selflessness.

The battlefield in the Greek Diaspora is organized somewhat differently. Cultural survival is not so much a question of territorial integrity as it is of ethnic vitality. The corps are collective bodies, the most important of which are parishes, schools, and associations. Schools, in particular, help impart the Greek language, history, and culture to the youth, thus perpetuating the Hellenic conscience in the new generations.

This begs the great question concerning whose responsibility it is to support and sustain these schools. Recent disappointing developments which saw the closing of parish day schools in areas where they once thrived must serve as a clear warning that the “one parish, one school” model is no longer functional (if it ever really was). If there is any truth to the old saying that “it takes a village to raise a child,” just imagine what resources are needed to properly operate a school.

The survival of Greek schools depends on engaging persons not directly involved with the day to day administration of the school and sensitizing them to their responsibility of maintaining these beacons of Hellenism in the Diaspora. To preserve the “hallowed halls” of our schools, it will take the same kind of sacrifice that was offered to defend the “sacred land” of Macedonia by our forefathers one hundred years ago.

The example of those Cretan patriots who overcame the natural confines of their island and the provincialism that justifiably exists among geographically isolated groups, sacrificing themselves in service to their fellow Macedonian brethren despite their own homeland’s great needs, stands as a sterling example, over a century later.

Ethnic and cultural organizations, neighboring parishes, patrons of the letters, and everyday members of the Community must overcome their own provincial limitations and the confines of their own egos or self-serving aspirations in order to realize that Greek Education in the Diaspora is a huge responsibility that cannot be shouldered by only one institution.

It takes an entire community (in the broadest sense of the word) to sustain a school.

The degree to which we can conform to the standard set by the Cretan volunteers in the Macedonian Struggle will – just as then – play a decisive role in the outcome of this new struggle, where the stakes are equally as high.

Follow me on Twitter @CTripoulas