This Day in Jewish History / The World Gets Its First Taste of Esperanto

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On July 26, the physician and philologist Ludwig Zamenhof published “Unua Libro,” a Russian-language pamphlet that provided the public with its first description of the international language that came to be called Esperanto.

Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof was born in Bialystok, Russia (today, in Poland) on December 15, 1859. Both his father, Markus Zamenhof, and grandfather, Fabian Zamenhof, were German teachers, and his native city was one where four languages were spoken regularly. The cultural and religious diversity of Bialystok – home to Jews, Poles, Russians, Belarusans, Tatars and Germans – made for frequent conflicts, and Ludwig became convinced that the lack of a common, neutral language was a prime source of the misunderstandings. Hence, from as early as his high school years, he began thinking about how to create a standard and regular international tongue.

Zamenhof studied medicine in Warsaw, and trained as an ophthalmologist. He practiced his profession among the poor Jewish population of that city, and often offered his services free of charge. His free time, he devoted to linguistic research: In 1879, Zamenhof published a Yiddish grammar, and he labored for a decade on the development of Esperanto, and on initial translations into the artificial tongue.

An example from an early prototype expressed his aspirations for what such a project might accomplish:

Malamikete de las nacjes
Kado, kado, jam temp' esta !
La tot' homoze in familje
Konunigare so deba.

(English translation: “May enmity between the peoples fall. The time is due! All of humanity must unite in a family.”)

Although Zamenhof had an early flirtation with Zionism, even before the political movement came into being, he soon became convinced that the separatist nature of what he referred to as Jewish “self-exile” was a recipe for failure. Instead, he proposed a secular philosophy he called “Hillelism,” after the first century B.C.E. rabbi Hillel, who had summarized the essence of Judaism as being, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.”

Zamenhof referred to the new language he described in “Unua Libro” as “Lingvo Internacia” – “international language.” He published the 44-page pamphlet, however, under the pseudonym of Doktoro Esperanto – “Doctor One-Who-Hopes” – and soon, the word “Esperanto” was applied to the language itself.

“Unua Libro” (meaning “first book” in the new language), which soon had editions in German, Yiddish, English, Polish and French, in addition to its original Russian version, was a brief work that included 16 grammatical rules and 900 roots, along with sample translations into the invented tongue of The Lord’s Prayer and some verses from the Bible, among a few other texts.

In keeping with Zamenhof’s altruism and idealism, he renounced his personal rights to the language, and declared that “Unua Libro” was in the public domain.

Esperanto was almost immediately popular, and by 1905, had become the focus of an annual international conference, an event that, like general interest in Esperanto, continues to this day. For a brief period before World War I, there was talk of making it the official language of Neutral Moresnet, a multi-ethnic territory between Belgium and Germany that at the time was not universally recognized as belonging to a particular state (today, it is part of the Belgian city of Kelmis). Later, after the war, serious consideration was given to making Esperanto the official language of the League of Nations. It was the French delegate to the League – perhaps predictably -- concerned that his country’s language was losing its international role, vetoed the proposal.

The utopian, internationalist nature of the Esperanto movement made it a target of totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. In “Mein Kampf,” Adolf Hitler even suggested that the language, having been created by a Jew, could be used by the international Jewish conspiracy when it achieved its threat to take control of the world. The language was outlawed in Germany in 1936.

Zamenhof himself died on April 14, 1917, of heart failure, in Warsaw. His three children – Adam, an ophthalmologist and hospital director; Lidia, an Esperanto teacher and acolyte of the Bahai religion; and Sofia, a pediatrician – were murdered in the Holocaust.

Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Map of Esperanto groups.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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