Esperanto

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.)

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