What does someone do when the rug of life is pulled from beneath his feet? Ludovic (Eliezer) Zamenhof began pondering this question when he was about fifteen years old.
DREAMS OF A UNIFYING LANGUAGE
“My mother was a believer, my father a non-believer,” he wrote years later on his death-bed. “In childhood I believed in G-d and the immortality of the soul in the form taught by the religion of my birth…. I reached the highest degree of infidelity about the age of 15 or16.”
With non-belief came agony.
“This was also the most tormenting period of my existence,” he recorded. “The whole of life lost all sense and value in my eyes. I despised myself and other men, seeing in myself and them only senseless pieces of flesh, which were created we know not from what cause nor for what end, which survive less than a tiny second of eternity, soon decay for ever, and will never more appear again during the coming infinite millions and billions of years. Why should I live, why should I learn, why should I work? …For it was all so senseless, worthless and absurd.”
To save his sanity, he began dreaming up a new idealism of his own. During the late Nineteenth Century new ideals and “isms” were being invented at the rate of a dime a dozen. To this witches’ brew of “new ways to save the world and make everyone happy” Zamenhof threw in an idea of his own, which was nothing less than to return mankind to the dawn of history when all mankind was of “one language and unified words.” Zamenhof’s impossible dream was to create, an easy to learn second-language that would help reunite mankind into one happy family.
Today, this language is known as “Esperanto,” named after Zamenhof’s pseudonym, Dr. Esperanto (the one who hopes).
Born in 5619/1859 atBialystoknear the Polish/Lithuanian border, Zamenhof experienced first hand the eternal friction between Germans, Poles, and Belarusians, and the eternal battle of them all against the Jew. He was certain that the world’s mélange of different languages was a major culprit in this scenario as he explained at a Universal Esperanto Congress inGenevaduring 5666/1906:
“In the streets of the unhappy town of my birth, savage men with axes and iron bars fell like wild beasts upon peaceful citizens whose only crime [was] that they spoke another language and held another creed than those savages. For this they cracked the skulls… of men and women, tottering old folk and helpless children….
“But could the worst of lies and calumnies have borne such awful fruit had the people known each other, had there not stood between them walls high and thick, making it impossible for them to communicate freely with each other and to see that men of other races are just the same sort of men as ourselves…. Break down, break down the walls between the peoples!”
His dream of a unified language festered in his head for years. First he thought it might be a good idea if everyone learnt Greek or Latin. After all hadn’t the Greeks and Romans ruled over unified empires for centuries? Then he realized that few people would be interested in laboring over these complicated dead languages. Finally he had a flash of inspiration.
“One day in the street when I was in the sixth or seventh class at school, I happened to notice the sign svejcarskaja (porter’s place) and then I noticed the sign kondtorskaja (confectioner’s place),” he wrote. “This skaja caught my attention and showed me that by means of suffixes one word can be made into other words which need not be separately learnt. This thought took hold of me and suddenly I felt my feet on firm ground. A ray of light fell upon those huge, terrifying dictionaries, and they began to dwindle rapidly before my eyes.”
Zamenhof was a talented linguist. Drawing on his knowledge of French, German and English, he began digging for the common roots that mortar the bricks of language. In effect, he was attempting to rebuild the toppled tower of Bavel and reunite humanity under one language. Was this viable?
Discussing the Towerof Bavel, Rav S.S. Hirsch explains that its construction epitomized a society united in everything except the service of Hashem. Such a society was not worth preserving, he explains, and was better off divided into seventy languages and scattered to the ends of the earth. As Chazal (Sanhedrin 71a) say, “Scattering of the wicked is a benefit for them and a benefit for the world. Unity of the wicked is bad for them and bad for the world.”
In light of this it seems that Zamenhof was reaching for the impossible.
HYMN OF BROTHERHOOD
By 5638/1878, at the age of nineteen, he had cobbled together a prototype of his new universal language and taught it to six or seven friends. On the fifth of December that year, his loving mother baked him a cake; he and a few comrades sat down to celebrate the launching of their new language with a “hymn of brotherhood,” in their new language, of course:
“Malamikete de las nacjes, Kado, Kado, jam temp’ esta! Lat tot homoze in familje Konunigare so deba….” (Hatred of the nations, fall, fall, it is already time! The whole of humanity in one family must unite themselves).
The brotherhood was short lived. After graduation that year almost all his friends forgot his dreams; as he put it, “Meeting the scoffing of grown-up people, they hastened to disown the language and I was left alone.”
Then, adamant that his son should learn a good profession, Zamenhof’s father packed him off to Moscow University to study medicine and on his return home two years later, his mother tearfully informed him that his father had thrown all his Esperanto notebooks into a fire. This didn’t phase our young hero one bit! He simply rewrote them from memory!
After receiving his medical certificate in 5645/1885, he discovered he was too soft hearted to practice regular medicine when a baby he was attending to died of fever and the anguished mother’s tears haunted him for months. Instead, he practiced ophthalmology in the Warsaw ghetto, treating poor Jews for substandard fees, while simultaneously forging ahead with his dream.
Discovering that a rival was about to publicize the inferior universal language “Volapuk,” Zamenhof hurriedly published his first Esperanto text-books (titled “Lingvo internacia. Antaŭparolo kaj plena lernolibro,” International Language. Foreword And Complete Textbook) in Russian, Polish, French, German and English. On the second page of each copy he gave up all proprietary rights to the book, explaining that “an international language, like a national one, is common property.”
Many people showed interest in his project. “My deep hope in mankind has not deceived me,” he exulted. “The good genius of mankind has awakened; young and old are coming from all sides to work for humanity….” An Esperanto magazine begun in 5660/1890 sparked international interest and fifteen years later in 5675/1905, Zamenhof and his wife set off in a third class railway coach to attend the first Esperanto congress at Boulogne-sur-Mer on the French coast.
“After many thousands of years of mutual dumbness and battle,” Zamenhof exclaimed there, “now at Boulogne there is in fact beginning in greater measure the mutual understanding and brotherhood of the diverse-peopled members of the human race and once it has begun it will not stop….”
FLY IN THE OINTMENT
By now, people were beginning to notice that Zamenhof’s program involved not only a universal language but also a universal abandonment of traditional religion. In addition to Esperanto, he had created a philosophy that he called Homaranismo (member of the human race), which he hoped would become the dominant ideal of mankind. As he wrote in 5671/1911, “The separation and hatred between the races will completely disappear when mankind has one language and one religion….”
Of course, not all Esperanto enthusiasts were willing to go that far, and to preserve their allegiance Zamenhof declared that his Homaranismo ideals represented his purely private faith and were not part of the political program. This factor may be the secret of Esperanto’s failure.
By the time Zamenhof passed away during 5677/1917 in German-occupied Warsaw it was still impossible to know whether Esperanto would be a rousing success or an abject failure. Time would tell.
After World War I, Esperanto suffered two crushing blows. First, Joseph Stalin hated Esperanto so fiercely that his secret police rounded up members of the Soviet Esperantist Union in 5697/1937 accusing them of belonging to “an international espionage organization of Esperantists.” Two thousand of them may have been executed and the language was banned until 5716/1956.
Hitler hated it too, as it had been created by a Jew and, he believed, fostered Jewish controlled cosmopolitanism.
Two countries have considered adopting it as their national language in the past hundred years. The first is the tiny 1.4 square mile state of Moresnet created on the Dutch/German border in 5566/1816 that took tentative steps to becoming the first Esperanto speaking country in the world during 5668/1908. The project crashed in 5676/1916 when Germany annexed Moresnet and it ceased to exist.
A second attempt at creating an Esperanto country was made after Italian engineer Giorga Rosa constructed a metal platform seven miles off the Italian coast and declared it the independent Republic of Rose Island (“Insulo de la Rozojin” in Esperanto) in June 5728/1968. This project crashed when Italian police dynamited the place soon afterwards.
In the final analysis, one could say that Esperanto has been displaced by English. Who needs Esperanto, which is spoken by only a few million, when English is spoken by billions everywhere and hardwired into every computer and technical system worldwide!
(Main source: Edmond Privat, The Life of Zamenhof. British Esperanto Organization; Unwin Brothers Ltd.: Woking, 1931.)