Ludwik Lejzer (“Eliezer Levi” in Hebrew) Zamenhof (1859-1917) is best known as the philologist who created Esperanto, the most widely-used constructed international auxiliary language in the world.
Zamenhof took an early interest in philology under the influence of his Litvak Jewish father who, though fluent in Russian, Polish, German, and French, ironically earned the high position of the Czar’s “Official Censor” of Jewish publications because of his comprehensive knowledge of Yiddish and Hebrew.
As we shall see, Ludwik’s philological background, his being raised as an “emancipated Jew” – i.e., a cheder-educated Jew who practiced Judaism at home but was a man of the world in public – and his early fervent Zionism, later discarded, all played fundamental roles in the birth and development of Esperanto.
In his first published article on Zionism (1882), Zamenhof argued that although a Jewish homeland was essential to Jewish survival, it should not be in Eretz Yisrael because the land was desolate and primitive; because of guaranteed fierce resistance from the Christian and Moslem religious hierarchies; because religious Zionists already living there would vehemently oppose a secular Jewish state; and because, in any event, the Ottoman Turks would never cede its land to Jews.
He proposed instead that a Jewish colony be established on a 60-square mile tract on the fertile Mississippi River, where the Jews could farm and live in peace, but his grand “American plan” was almost universally mocked. As a result of his misguided notion, however, he came to understand the criticality of Eretz Yisrael to the 2,000-year-old Zionist dream and, in his very next article, he completely reversed course, employing lyrical and romantic language in manifesting a passionate Zionism centered on Eretz Yisrael.
Nor was his Zionism limited to his writing, as he became an active member of Chovevei Zion in Warsaw, served on its executive committee, led a student society called Shearit Israel (the “Remnant of Israel”), and established a broad fundraising network for aliyah. He was recognized as one of the great European Zionist leaders toward the end of the 19th century, but his Zionism proceeded along a unique path: philology.
In the aftermath of the infamous Russian pogroms following the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881, Zamenhof joined many Jews in questioning whether they had any future in Eastern Europe. Many Jews embraced the ultimate Zionist solution – aliyah – as thousands fled to Eretz Yisrael as part of what came to be known as the “First Aliyah.” One of those Jews was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the “father of modern Hebrew,” who left Russia in 1881 and settled in Jerusalem. Central to his lexicographical efforts was his belief, forged during his years of yeshiva study, that Hebrew and Zionism are symbiotic and that no Jewish state could emerge without a common language, which he fervently believed must be Hebrew, the language of the Bible.
Zamenhof similarly believed in the necessity of a single language for all Jews, but he thought that language should be Yiddish, then spoken by some two-thirds of the world’s Jews. As such, he had initially turned to modernizing the Yiddish language, instituting the use of Latin characters and revised spellings and suggesting other orthographic innovations.
Although a substantive analysis of the structure of Esperanto is well beyond the scope of this article, it conspicuously incorporates some of Zamenhof’s Yiddish work – indeed, one commentator pithily characterizes Esperanto as “Yiddish for the goyim” – but it also employs the logical economy of consonants that is the hallmark of Hebrew.
In any case, there is little question that his profound knowledge of Hebrew and Aramaic contributed to its logical structure. He claimed that Esperanto, which incorporates some 900 roots common to many Romance languages and 16 grammatical rules, was so simple that “even the most uneducated person can learn it very well in one week.” Tolstoy reportedly learned it in three to four hours.
As a precocious 10-year-old cognizant of the anti-Semitic environment in which he lived and of the numerous European conflicts raging around him, Zamenhof wrote The Tower of Babel, or the Białystok Tragedy in Five Acts, in which he concluded that the world’s evils were all caused by the lack of a common language. Even as a young man studying medicine at university in Moscow (M.D., 1884) and Vienna (ophthalmology, 1886), and later as a practicing physician in Lithuania and as an ophthalmologist in the Jewish quarter of Warsaw, he had been working on establishing the parameters of a politically-neutral universal language.
By the late 1880s, he came to believe that he could establish global harmony by inspiring all people to adopt a single neutral medium of common understanding and, as such, he conceived Esperanto as a means of facilitating world peace through effective communication. As he later wrote in a 1905 correspondence, “My Jewishness has been the main reason why, from earliest childhood, I have given my all for a single great idea, a single dream – the dream of the unity of humankind.”
Devoting serious efforts to completing his philological work, Zamenhof published Lingvo Internacia (“International Language”), a seminal 1887 pamphlet (in Russian) under the pseudonym Doctoro Esperanto, or “Dr. Hopeful.” He had previously completed a working first draft of the article at age 19, but his father, unhappy about his son’s distraction from his medical studies, burned it. His expectations for Lingvo Internacia bordered on the delusional, as he characterized it as important as “the discovery of America, the use of steam engines and the introduction of the alphabet.”
Many commentators posit that Zamenhof was motivated to create Esperanto as an antidote to anti-Semitism and as a means to unite the entire Jewish Diaspora, a theory that finds substantive support from Zamenhof’s own words. For example, in 1907, he elaborated on this idea in a quote cited by the British press:
I can tell you that I acted mainly in the interests of my fellow believers when I was inventing this language. I saw them cut off from the world because of the language they spoke only between themselves and in a churlish manner. I saw them locked up in a ghetto and as a result they were exposed to the terrible curse of ethnic hatred, and the walls of the ghetto were mainly made of jargon.
In following this path, however, he rejected traditional Zionism in favor of universalism, albeit as an alleged means for Jewish survival. He rationalized his turn away from Jewish and Zionist issues by characterizing his new language as an inherently Jewish cause, constituting an important manifestation of the Jews serving G-d as “a light unto the nations.”
Nonetheless, even if he arguably acted with pure motives, at the end of the day he was no different than any of the legions of assimilationists throughout Jewish history who sought to solve the “Jewish problem” through the bastardization, and ultimate elimination, of the Jewish faith. His turn to human unity was not without guilt, however, as he later wrote of his being “tormented” by thoughts that he had “no moral right to work neutrally for human ideals, when my people suffered so much and had so few to fight on their behalf.”
In his drive to unite the world through Esperanto, he rejected not only Zionism, but also traditional Judaism, as he essentially formed a new religion which he believed to be essential to Esperanto’s mission. He maintained that the “Jewish people” had not actually existed for a long time; charged Jews with being hypocrites for clinging to a religion that few followed; and particularly spurned any Jewish claim to being G-d’s chosen people.
He argued that the Jews, “chained to a cadaver,” had to free themselves from the Mosaic Covenant and be subject only to the Golden Rule, which he considered to be the exemplar par excellence for ethical universalism. In a disgraceful display of impertinence, he named this new faith “Hillelism,” purposely usurping Hillel’s good name because of the first century tanna’s renown for his explication of the Golden Rule – which, though most often erroneously credited to Jesus, was always Jewish and had Mishnaic origins.
In Der Hilelismus (1901), Zamenhof promoted Hillelism as the solution to the “Jewish problem,” which he ascribed to “the pseudo-Palestinian character of their religion.” Unambiguously presenting Judaism as humanist philosophy, he advocated a Judaism of “pure monotheism” with no law other than the Golden Rule.
Pursuant to this “new” faith – which was virtually indistinguishable from virulent left-wing Reform Judaism – Jewish customs would be preserved, but only as lovely traditions and not as binding law. Zamenhof succeeded in unifying everyone under a single faith-based religious umbrella only to the extent that his new religion (and its false messiah) was all but universally rejected.
Nonetheless, Esperanto itself, stripped of its religious machinations, grew in popularity worldwide, albeit gradually. Zamenhof himself hoped that the United States would become the international headquarters for Esperanto. On September 17, 1887, Der Deutsche Correspondent, a German-language newspaper published in Baltimore, became the first American publication to mention Esperanto.
Nonetheless, awareness of the new language in the U.S. was slow to spread and American newspapers paid little attention to it in its early years. In May 1897, almost 10 years after Zamenhof published Lingvo Internacia, The New York Times wrote an article about a “well-written little pamphlet” by “somebody named L. Samenhof.”
The first Esperanto magazine appeared in 1889. With great literary and linguistic skill, Zamenhof developed and tested his nascent language by writing original poems in Esperanto and by translating many classical works, including plays by Shakespeare, Molière, Goethe, and Gogol (his translation of an article by the great Tolstoy was interestingly suppressed by the Russian czar). He also completed an Esperanto translation of the Torah shortly before his death.
By 1905, there were more than 300 Esperanto associations around the world and that same year, the first annual Esperanto Congress convened in Boulogne-sue-Mer, France with 700 attendees from 20 nations. To the joy of all present, and as evidence to many of the success of Zamenhof’s dream, all addresses were made in Esperanto and all attendees, who were otherwise unable to communicate with each other, conversed in Esperanto.
However, Zamenhof’s Judaism had become a burden to the movement he created to the point that to preserve and promote neutrality, the Esperanto Committee went to great lengths to conceal his Jewishness, particularly from the French press, then deeply embroiled in the Dreyfus Affair.
The Congress adopted Zamenhof’s Declaration on the Essence of Esperantism, pursuant to which Esperantism was declared to be a politically, religiously, and morally neutral movement that introduces an international auxiliary language available to all and dependent on no legal governmental authority.
By 1906, however, Zamenhof changed the name of the movement to “Humanitarianism” as a sop to non-Jewish Esperantists, thereby pushing it even more leftward and away from halachic Judaism. Nevertheless, he retained his belief that his movement would unite people in support of monotheism and would advance the Jewish imperative of tikkun olam (“repairing and improving the world,” which remains the mistaken focus of contemporary Reform Judaism).
Ironically, these attempts to de-Judaize the Esperanto movement failed as, from its very inception, Esperanto intensified many of the common schisms that have plagued contemporary Jewish unity, including particularly rifts between Zionists and Diasporists, Hebraists and Yiddishists, religious and secular, and nationalists and internationalists.
Even well after Zamenhof’s death, Hitler characterized Esperanto in Mein Kampf as “a Jewish conspiracy,” and both he and Stalin issued specific orders to execute Esperantists. Adding further irony to Zamenhof’s efforts to promote a universalist monotheistic faith, he is considered a god by the Japanese Oomoto religion (an offshoot of Shinto founded in 1892).
World War I devastated Zamenhof’s hopes of uniting all people and his disappointment, coupled with his over-ambitious work schedule, adversely affected his health and led to his death by heart attack in 1917. Esperanto suffered perhaps its greatest failure soon after, when its supporters failed to persuade the League of Nations to support it as the official international language.
Nonetheless, his daughter, Lidia, continued his work and became a member of the Baha’i faith, which she saw as sharing her late father’s humanist philosophy. Her adoption of a new religion, however, did not impress the Nazis, who confined her to the Warsaw ghetto before sending her to Treblinka, where she was murdered in 1942. (Zamenhof’s two other children were also Holocaust victims.)
Esperanto has retained its aficionados and maintained some degree of popularity. There are currently a million devotees who speak and read the language – and several thousand who have been raised by their parents to speak it as their native language; it has a limited literature of its own; there are still programs available to those who wish to learn the language; Esperanto symposia and seminars, including the annual meetings of the Esperanto Congress, continue to generate interest and draw attendees; and Esperanto is even an option on Google Translate. (Interestingly, the infamous George Soros, who was raised as a native Esperanto speaker, used the occasion of the 1947 Esperanto Congress to escape to the West.)
Nonetheless, Zamenhof’s grandiose but unrealistic dreams for his universal language never even came close to realization; Esperanto remains largely a historical curiosity; and, in the final analysis, it must be viewed as a failure.
In recognition of his idealism and quest for world peace, Zamenhof was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize 13 times, but he never won it, and UNESCO named him as one of its eminent personalities of 2017. There is a Zamenhof Street in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – and in 1938 the minor planet Zamenhof was named in his honor.