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L.L. Zamenhof and the Shadow People

The amazing story of how Esperanto came to be.

Starting at midnight on December 15, 2009, the Google logo was draped in a green flag. Perhaps you thought it was the Palestinian or the Saudi flag; perhaps this unsettled you enough to mouse it. If you did, you’d have learned that the flag celebrated the one hundred and fiftieth birthday of Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, the founder of Esperanto. And if you clicked on it, you’d have helped make “L.L. Zamenhof” the third most often-searched term on Google that day.

None of this was happenstance. It was the work of an Israeli Esperantist named Yosi Shemer, who sends two hundred twenty-five people a weekly Jewish-joke-in-Esperanto (with all Hebrew or Yiddish terms glossed in Esperanto). Though he modestly credits the idea to “some European Esperantist,” it was Yosi who began the campaign last September, entreating Esperantists worldwide to lobby Google—in English—for a doodle. And enough of them did to conjure a bright green flag on Google’s homepage in 33 different languages, including Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. Google calls this a “global” doodle, and of the last 59 to appear on its various home pages, only Zamenhof, the invention of the bar code, and water on the moon received this honor. News travels fast in Esperanto-land and soon Esperantists who were already lifting glasses to honor Zamenhof, lifted them a bit higher.

To Esperantists, the man who created the language-movement is a household god, a patron saint. As for non-Esperantists who are aware of Zamenhof, he’s too unthreatening nowadays to be derided as a quixotic dreamer. Most regard him with mild condescension as a MittelEuropean, Jewish Geppetto, hammering together his little toy language in the hope that it might someday become real. 

But inside this Geppetto was not only the dream of a new language, but also of something far stranger and unimagined: a new people altogether, and neither the Jews nor the Esperantists were the people he envisioned.  Project by project, credo by credo, member by member, he tried to build a new people, a Geppetto with the audacity of Frankenstein. 

He was born in Bialystok, Poland (then, Greater Lithuania) in 1859, the son of the czar’s Jewish censor for Hebrew and Yiddish books. A slight, bespectacled man, Zamenhof had piercing, faintly Asiatic eyes that seemed out of place in his implausibly bulbous head. Nearing 30, his boxy beard still black, he could have passed for a younger, less self-important, brother of Sigmund Freud. He was an oculist by profession but, at one time or another, he’d been many other things: an early Zionist, a journalist, a modernizer of Yiddish, a general practitioner, a lecturer, a poet, a translator, a religious reformer, and an amateur language-engineer, with a knack for getting the bugs out. “I was taught,” he wrote, “that all men were brothers, and, meanwhile, in the street, in the square, everything at every step made me feel that men did not exist, only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so on.” He was determined to bring “men” into being with his 1887 Lingvo Internacia, published under the pseudonym “Doctor Esperanto” (the hopeful one). 

At the back of the 44-page Russian-language pamphlet were coupons; the signatory was to promise to learn the international language provided ten million other people promised likewise. Two years later, Zamenhof had received only 1,000 promises. But by then the language, already going by his pseudonym, Esperanto, had been adopted by the “World Language Club” of Nuremberg, an Esperanto-language journal had been launched, and the introductory pamphlet—the Unua Libro (First Book)—had been translated into a dozen different languages. The rest, as they say, is history. From a mere 16 grammatical rules and 900-odd roots, Esperanto has endured, grown, and flourished into a living, world language with a sophisticated original literature. People make love and have toothaches in it; children are born into it. And it is alive and well on the Internet, where it is used to teach, inform, debate, entertain, gossip, persuade, and argue with other Esperantists about everything from advocacy to ... well, Zamenhof. 

He seemed to be the right man at the right time. Between 1866, when the transatlantic cable was finally up and running, and 1896, when Marconi patented the radio, the future promised new networks of communication about education, culture, science, and technology. Glimpsed just over the hills, the century that would beget the atom bomb appeared to have a distinctly human face, and it was speaking incessantly. With new conversations forging new bonds, relations among diverse peoples and nations were sure to benefit.      

Zamenhof intended Esperanto to jump-start such conversations. It was easy and cheap to learn–“the labor of a few hours,” as he put it—and equally accessible to workers and intellectuals. But though quick to be learned, it was slow to gain momentum and impotent to make money. The late 1890s found Zamenhof trying to start a medical career, raise a family, and secure his beloved language; he was itinerant and impoverished, at times despairing. By 1901, having staked his wife’s dowry, his family’s well-being, and his meager earnings on Esperanto, he became convinced that to survive, Esperanto would have to become the hereditary language of a people.      

Which people? The answer, to this modern, Russian-speaking Jew, was obvious; he would offer it to the Eastern European Jewish intelligentsia, exhorting them to give up their tribal identity and become an enlightened, ethical community. He put their situation starkly: “The Jewish people, for a long time now haven’t existed. … The expression ‘the Jewish people,’ which according to traditional custom is used by us and our persecutors, is only a consequence of an illusion ... a deep-rooted metaphor, similar to the way in which we say about a portrait of a person, customarily, ‘there is that person,’ nevertheless this person is already long dead and in the portrait remains only its shadow.” Tethered to dead ancestors yet religiously unmoored, these Russified Jews had become a “shadow people.”

There was an alternative: a plan for a reformed Judaism that Zamenhof called Hilelismo (Hillelism). In a lengthy, Russian-language tract, he presented Hillelism as a new, purified, theosophical Judaism with an emphasis on ethics. At times, he sounds like the Apostle Paul entreating the Corinthians to abandon the literal observance of the laws of Moses and interpret according to the spirit. But into the legal vacuum created when the laws of torah were abandoned, Zamenhof beckoned a rule drawn from within the Judaic religion. His point in naming the “purified” Judaism after a pivotal first century BCE rabbi was to overgo, in one bold gesture, both Moses and Jesus, who had based his golden rule on Hillel’s famous admonition, “Do not do unto others what is hateful to you.”  

While Zamenhof disparaged the separatism of what he called Jewish “self-exile,” he wanted to do more than transform Jews into individuals of conscience; he wanted to rebuild the Jews as a people. In fact, there is a deeply conservative strain to Zamenhof’s Hillelism, in which cultural traditions serve as moral cement. The Hillelists, he imagined, would retain what Edmund Burke called a “moral wardrobe” of their cultural inheritance. All traditions that could possibly be purged of tribalism and chauvinism were to be conserved: the Bible, the sabbath, the festivals, etc. Thus, with Hillelism recognizably and culturally Jewish, it would in time attract unworldly, traditionally educated, Jews into the fold and eventually, others who sought a “pure theosophical” faith.”

Though the Hillelists of the future would be multicultural and multireligious, Zamenhof nonetheless imagined those Hillelists as a people. Thus he arrived at a conundrum. How could a group of human beings with varied national origins possibly attain—and sustain—the bonds of peoplehood? This is not a question that federated states—or multinationals such as the United Nations or the European Union—need to ponder. But those of us who are citizens of multicultural nations such as the United States, know that our “peoplehood” has a checkered history. Our knee-jerk, civics-class habit of equating American peoplehood with diversity is a recent development. In fact, attempts to define Americans as a “people” coincide with our most egregious episodes of racism, nativism, exclusionism, and anti-immigration legislation.

For Zamenhof, the answer to this conundrum lay squarely in the arena of language. Wearing the mantle of Johann Gottfried Herder, who argued that language is the essence of the volk, Zamenhof identified language as the sine qua non of peoplehood. The fragility of Jewish identity, he argued, lay chiefly in the fact that the Jews lacked their own language. He noted that he’d at one time backed the Hebrew revival piloted by his contemporary, Eliezer Ben Yehuda (though I haven’t found evidence for this); he had also spent three years developing a modern, rationalized Yiddish using Latin characters. But by 1901, he had changed his mind on both counts. Hebrew, he felt, was “cadaverous,” and Yiddish, a “jargon.” Only with a neutral, artificial language—an Esperanto that Hillelist Jews would remake, eventually, in their own image—could the Jewish people justify their peoplehood to themselves and the modern world.

But the Jews of the Russian empire spurned both of his gifts—Hillelism and Esperanto.   As the Jewish Chronicle of London put it in 1907, “The sect which Dr. Zamenhof sought to establish has never been represented by more than one person—himself.” By the time Hilelismo appeared in 1901, the First Zionist Congress of 1897 had already convinced many Jews of Eastern Europe that a political solution to the Jewish question was close at hand. It is not that Zamenhof was out of step with developments; on the contrary, Hilelismo was a rebuke to political Zionism, and he was not the only Jew to write one. So did Ahad Haam, the religious conscience of the early Zionists, who derided Herzl for his “idolatrous” failure to root nationalism in Jewish ethics. As for the Jews and Esperanto, some were drawn to it from the start. In the earliest Esperanto adresaro (directory), there are nearly 200 Jewish names among the 900-odd Esperantists living under the Czar. But most Russian Jews, as Jeffrey Veidlinger has recently shown, were consumed with endless debates on the relative merits of Yiddish and Hebrew, and would continue to be for decades. 

While Zamenhof smarted from the failure of Hillelism, the neutral, artificial language he had offered the Jews had taken on a life of its own. As Esperanto, his “beloved child,” became a cranky adolescent, journeying from provincial Eastern Europe to worldly Paris, the Jewish father with his prophetic talk of justice and brotherhood became an embarrassment. Zamenhof’s hope for the first World Congress of Esperantists in 1905, to take place in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, was that the Congress would be “a heart-warming religious center.” He addressed these words in a letter to the organizer, the eminent French attorney Henri Michaux, who alerted the other French members of the committee to his concerns about Zamenhof’s “mysticism.” When the poem Zamenhof intended to read at the opening ceremony (his own composition, called “Prayer under the Green Standard”) was read aloud to the Committee, the result was explosive. In Michaux’s words, “one could hardly grasp the wonderment and scandal of these French intellectuals, with their Cartesian … spirit, these representatives of lay universities and supporters of secular government, accustomed to and identified with freethinking and atheism, when they heard this flaming prayer to ‘the high moral Power.’ … ‘But he’s a Jewish prophet,’ cried [Carlo] Bourlet, and [Theophile] Cart for his part: ‘That Slav! Michaux will never be able to control this crazy man!’ And [General Hippolyte] Sebert lamented: ‘We’ll be ruined and a laughingstock.’”   In the end, Zamenhof recited his prayer, minus the final stanza, which began: “Together brothers, join hands, /Forward with peaceful armour!/ Christians, Jews or Mahometans, /We are all children of God.” After reading it, Zamenhof received an ovation so long and ardent that it startled him. Still, the French organizers of the 1905 Congress went to great lengths to obscure Zamenhof’s Jewishness, and the result was noted—with evident pride—by Zamenhof’s close Jewish associate, the oculist Emile Javal: “Of 700 articles in the press, only one mentioned Zamenhof’s Jewishness.”

But the bloody events of the revolutionary year 1905 renewed Zamenhof’s determination to inculcate Esperantists with the values of Hillelism. In January 1906, a fictitious “Circle of Hillelists” issued “The Dogmas of Hillelism,” a twelve-point credo treating religion, language, morals, and customs. It was clear that he was no longer addressing it to Jews; all Hillelists were entitled to their chosen or inherited religions—entitled also to their various “family languages” at home—but each would vow to reject those elements that failed to meet the severe ethical standards of Hillelism: nationalistic ideals; national, racial and religious chauvinism; and doctrines offensive to reason. In short, it was to be a sort of ethical quality-control on religion, transacted in Esperanto, with a few key social institutions attached. (Think, your neighborhood JCC: Hillelists would someday convene in Hillelist temples with Hillelist religious schools and Hillelist programs for the elderly.) The goal, to form a new people, had not changed, but the strategy had. It was to be a quiet, gradual transformation, conscience by conscience, “unremarked and without any disruption.” 

Before the year was out, Zamenhof lightly revised the declaration, changing the name from Hillelismo to Homaranismo (Humanitarianism). He was de-Judaizing a movement grounded in Jewish ethics, presenting it anew to the Esperantists as a “philosophically pure monotheism.” But his intention to present Homaranismo at the Second World Congress in 1906 evidently met with a fierce backdraft from the movement’s leaders. In the months leading up to the Geneva congress, as Christer Kiselman has shown, Zamenhof began backpedaling on Homaranismo. It would have trouble gaining adherents, he wrote, if it required the adoption of a new language; if it were perceived as a religious dogma rather than a “neutral bridge” among religions; if it sounded too utopian. A mere three weeks before the opening of the Congress, his confidence low, he wrote to Javal, “According to your advice, I threw out of my congress speech the last part touching on Homaranismo—and speak only of the interna ideo—the internal idea—of Esperantism. I am leaving each person to clarify for himself the essence of the idea, as he wishes.” There is pathos in his concealment of Homaranismo at the behest of the movement’s most prestigious, mainly French, leaders; in this encoding of his most dearly held belief as the interna ideo. Pathos, but heroism too, since Zamenhof was in fact trusting the Esperantists themselves to understand the interna ideo as the mandate for a modern, ethical community.  

Zamenhof, though he many times renounced his authority over Esperanto, in fact wielded his authority shrewdly to guide the movement through three controversies, each of which eventually led to a schism—schisms, I would add, that the movement somehow survived. The first was the question of language reform. Since 1894, when the earliest agitation for language reform forced Zamenhof to hold a plebiscite, he realized that not only had the language failed to create a harmonious people; it was dividing its users. As Alexander Korjhenkov, Zamenhof’s most recent (and most scrupulous) biographer notes, the reforms Zamenhof proposed in 1894 reforms remain a puzzle. For one thing, they are far more extreme than his conservative fundamental rules would suggest; for another, he was at work translating Hamlet in the very language that he was now proposing to revise drastically. The reforms were defeated, but the problems remained, and Zamenhof turned his attention to setting up an elected, authorized Language Committee that would decide linguistic matters. 

In 1907 the issue of language reform, in Zamenhof’s words a “sword of Damocles,” nearly hacked the movement apart. When the prestigious pour l’adoption d’une langue auxiliare internationale met in Paris to select an authorized international language, Zamenhof’s hand-picked delegate sabotaged his, Zamenhof’s, sacred cause. Louis de Beaufront, the sham marquis annointed by Zamenhof, put forward an anonymously authored language called “Ido” (Esperanto for offspring), passing it off as a “revised” Esperanto. The “Ido schism” put paid to Zamenhof’s long-held expectation—both a dream and a fear—that an independent academy or international governmental authority would endorse Esperanto. Zamenhof stood up to the Delegation’s   attempt to compel the Esperantists to accept “Ido” as their own; holding his ground, he declared the movement’s autonomy and the Language Committee’s authority over linguistic reform. To this day, Esperantists maintain that the Ido schism was the crucial coming-of-age for the movement, when it reckoned with—and proudly assumed—the burden of having an idealistic, ethical interna ideo.

The other two controversies, incipient in the early years of the movement, were kept in check during Zamenhof’s lifetime. First, was the question of ideological “neutrality,” insisted upon by the French Esperantists and made sacrosanct in 1905 by the Declaration of Boulogne. In 1921 it was not Hillelists but socialists who shredded the frayed ethos of neutrality. Taking as their slogan “For la neutralismon”—“Away with neutrality”—they broke off and formed the “Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda,” or “SAT”—in English, the “World Anational Association.” (SAT, in time, would fissure into pro-Stalinist and anti-Stalinist factions, but that is a story for another day.)

As the word “Anational” in the name of the socialist movement suggests, the controversial role played by national Esperanto groups also prompted a schism. A 1922 a compromise plan called the “Contract of Helsinki” set up an International Central Committee to balance the interests of national groups with those of the rank and file members of the Universal Esperanto Association. In the 1930s, national groups desiring greater control over the UEA broke away to form the Internacia Esperanto Ligo (International Esperanto League or IEL); in 1936, they abandoned the Geneva headquarters of the UEA and set up an Avignon papacy in London. Only after World War II, in 1947, were the two factions reunited. 

This story of quarrels and schisms is one way among others of telling the story of Zamenhof’s language-movement. My point in telling it this way—and in extending it 30 years after his death—is to marvel that Zamenhof kept faith, until almost the end of his life, with the Esperantists. For him, they remained the last, best chance of realizing his dream of creating an ethical, modern people. He knew that, in the mouths of free human beings, the language Esperanto could be used either for promoting harmony or for backbiting, cheating, and lying; he knew, in other words, that the language would never by itself confer on humanity the affective bonds of peoplehood. Only an Esperanto people who shared a language and an ethos could do that, and Zamenhof made it his life’s work to bring that people into being.

In the end, it was not the Esperantists who caused him to lose his faith in this pursuit; it was a world at war. In 1917, a few months before his death, he sent yet another version Homaranismo to newspapers all over the world, asking this time that it be published in diverse national tongues. He knew that the people he’d tried to create, who would cherish their neutral, modern, classless language, pass it to their children, and share it universally, remained a dream.   

What Zamenhof could not know was that Esperanto would survive the brutal twentieth century because he inspired women and men in each generation to choose it freely—sometimes, during the century’s most brutal decades, at risk of their lives. It was the Esperantists after all, flawed, bickering, merely human, who would shadow forth the people of a more just, harmonious world.

Esther Schor, a poet and professor of English at Princeton University, is the author of Emma Lazarus (Schocken, 2006) and is writing a book about Esperanto. Her essays and reviews have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times Book Review, and The Forward.

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