Did Esperanto Answer the ‘Jewish Question’?

How Jewish was the international tongue that never quite made it...?

James R. Russell
Postcard commemorating the 1912 Esperanto congress in Krakow, marking the language's 25th anniversary. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel)

Sub la sankta signo de espero

Kolektiĝas pacaj batalantoj,

Kaj rapide kreskos la afero

Per laboro de la esperantoj.


Under the sacred sign of hope

Gather the peaceful warriors,

And rapidly the cause will grow

By the labor of the hopeful.


(L.L. Zamenhof, “La Espero”, the hymn of the Esperanto movement; third stanza)


Leyzer (Eliezer) Levi Zamenhof was born in 1859 into a Jewish family in Belostok, a provincial city in the Russian Empire, now Bialystok, Poland. Roughly two-thirds of its inhabitants were Jews. Most of the rest were Poles, Ukrainians, Belorussians, Russians, and Germans. Like many other Jews in the Tsarist Pale of Settlement, the Zamenhofs lived in a multilingual environment. His educated, secularist family spoke Russian at home, but were also intimately familiar with Yiddish, the language that most Ashkenazi Jews spoke on a daily basis – it was, according to one turn-of-the-century statistic, the native tongue of 96% of the Jews in the Russian Empire. The men of the family were also literate in Hebrew and Aramaic, the sacred tongues of the Bible, of prayer, and of Talmudic study.

The Zamenhof home in Bialystock. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Zamenhof’s father Marcus, although a maskil (secular or “enlightened” Jew), read from the Torah at the Choral Synagogue in Bialystok, and after the family moved from there to Warsaw, the elder Zamenhof worked as an Imperial censor of Hebrew and Yiddish books and periodicals. Leyzer’s father thus had a solid grounding in Jewish practice and ritual, and thorough knowledge of the sacred tongue. The Zamenhofs also knew Polish, the native language of most of the gentile population, as well as German, then the speech of science and progress, and the children learned French and English at school.

Sympathetic in his youth to Zionism, in 1882 Leyzer opened a local Warsaw chapter of Ḥovevei Tsiyyon (“Lovers of Zion”) in the wake of the pogroms that swept the Russian Empire. He even met his future wife, Klara Silbernik, at a clandestine meeting of the group. Though in his later years Zamenhof ceased to actively champion Zionism, he never actively opposed it. Rather, like many other European Jews in the years before the unimaginable horrors of Nazism, he thought quite reasonably that life in the European Diaspora, though very challenging, was ultimately viable. Europe was then the center of the world’s progress in science, in culture and learning, and in political reform; and the connection to that continent of the Jewish people, so deeply rooted and so actively involved in and committed to all the facets of its civilization, was surely so vital as to be irrevocable.


Universal and Jewish questions

By the late 19th century, which we now look back to as an age of optimism, political activism and the belief in social and ethical progress were commonplace in the Jewish community. What may seem particularly strange or even absurd to many now, though, is the attachment of ideas precisely about language to schemes for social progress. Many polyglot idealists in the 19th century proposed that an invented language shared by people across borders would be the key factor in the promotion of other ideals of social reform and international peace. Like the belief most Jews still held of a viable Diaspora, this conviction was not at all unusual for the time, and it seemed eminently practical as well. If only people could understand each other and not believe their own native language to be intrinsically superior to that of others, the line of reasoning went, reason would triumph over enmity; fraternity, over chauvinism. The idea that a common language resolves differences seems hopelessly naïve now: one can understand one’s fellow perfectly and still despise him or even want to kill him.

Zamenhof. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

Language carried a special weight in the age of romantic nationalism that it is fair to say it no longer does: the national language, and the cultural, collective memory it enshrined in sacred texts and in secondarily sacralized epics, histories, and collections of folklore, were held to be as much the markers of nationality as territorial boundaries. Perhaps because the language battles have been fought to a conclusion in one way or another over much of the world’s surface, that is no longer as much the case. In the 19th century, though, an official language was a foundation of national identity, together with a native land and, if possible, a sovereign state. Indeed, for Poles and other national minorities deprived by aggressive imperialism of independent statehood on their native soil, language assumed still greater importance as the bearer of identity. By the same token, conflicts between ethnic populations frequently manifested themselves in the form of linguistic clashes. These conflicts were particularly common in the Tsarist Empire, where it seems that however intensely each minority group might detest another, they often all agreed on a common hatred of the Jews. Thus the context of Zamenhof’s childhood and youth was more like Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain… where ignorant armies clash by night,” amidst the ruins of the tower of Babel, than a bright mosaic of diversity.

“Bialystock, Hometown of Dr. L.L. Zamenhof”. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

It is not surprising that language, which was so much at the core of identity in 19th century Europe, became the basis for the expression of Zamenhof’s much wider ideals and the arena of his life’s work. The fruit of that noble labor was the invention that has made him immortal – the international language named Esperanto after the modest nom de plume of its creator.

Given the precarious predicament of the Jews, his plans naturally addressed the “Jewish Question”. Zamenhof, a Jew who loved his people, worried about its future and was even sympathetic to Zionism. Yet he was not a nationalist per se, as he stressed the apolitical character of his aspirations, while emphasizing a commitment to ideals of human equality and social justice that transcended partisan politics. Even though Zamenhof saw himself as soaring over the roadblocks, customs houses, and border fences that divide states, and although Esperanto has no earthly locus other than where a speaker of it hangs his hat, the ideas that inform Esperanto still do have a precise location on the intellectual map of Eastern European Jewry of the period. “Esperantoland” on our imagined chart of the intellect is a left-leaning clime situated close to the Bundist and Socialist districts.

Bialystok Esperantists in front of the Zamenhof house, 1929. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Language was to be the vehicle of international understanding and reconciliation, of universal peace and brotherhood, but which of the many tongues spoken or written by the Jews of the Russian Empire was to be harnessed to his chariot of fire? The future father of Esperanto experimented. At first, the young Zamenhof aspired to adopt the imperial tongue and become a Russian poet, but gave up his dream because of the pervasive antisemitism of the empire. He then turned his efforts inward and toyed for a time with reforming Hebrew, but rejected that, too, as impractical. He worked on a grammar with the aim of regularizing and reforming Yiddish, the spoken language of most Eastern European Jews. But he abandoned this effort, as well: fluid, lively Yiddish simply would not bend to his iron grammarian’s will. Besides, no matter what he did with Yiddish, it would be a hard sell for poor Jews interested in breaking out of their physical and linguistic ghetto.


Doctor Hopeful’s linguistic Genesis

Zamenhof invented his new universal language twice. His father found and burnt the first manuscript when the youth was away in Moscow at university. We have but one poem in this precursor to Esperanto; its predictable theme, kindness, fraternity, and romantic striving. Esperantists thus have a small fragment of a proto-language, just enough to be certain that the later invention proceeded from it, as well as so little as to leave room for wondering speculation about what else there may have been in those early writings that were consigned to the flames and irrevocably lost. Esperanto as an invented language has no pre-existence, no antiquity ipso facto; so its creator’s first attempt is the subject of fascinated study, a bit like mystical speculation about the ages that preceded Genesis.

Zamenhof’s translation of the Book of Genesis into Esperanto, 1911. From the National Library of Israel collection

In Warsaw on July 26, 1887, Zamenhof published in Russian La Unua Libro, literally The First Book of his fully-formed second try, signing it “Doktoro Esperanto”. He gave the language a core lexicon based mainly on Latin roots, yet it is not an ersatz Romance language. The roots Zamenhof ingeniously selected were specifically those that are more or less readily recognizable to speakers not only of the living Romance languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish, but also to speakers of a spectrum of Germanic and Slavic ones, including German, English, Russian, Polish and even Yiddish.

A guide to Esperanto in Yiddish, Warsaw, 1911. Similar publications were even produced in Hebrew and Ladino, among other languages. From the National Library of Israel collection

By using common Latinate words the inventor sought to ensure a linguistic equality and neutrality, whereby speakers of different national languages might meet on a level playing field, employing for mutual communication a language supported not by governmental domination, economic hegemony, or military force, but by a humanistic ideal that takes precedence over political power and territorial control. He saw in his efforts a religious undertaking of sorts. He even went so far as to compare Esperanto congresses to the three obligatory Jewish pilgrimages to the Holy Temple in ancient Jerusalem!

Zamenhof never actually gave a name to his new language, perhaps because names help to reify things, to create boundaries and exclusive identities – the very ills he wanted to avoid, transcend, and remedy. He termed his invention simply an “internacia lingvo” and, as we have seen, modestly employed as a nom de plume in his manual of the language the present participle singular “Esperanto“, which means in it “One who hopes”. As noted above, that first edition of the manual, La Unua Libro, was published in Russian, though translations into other languages swiftly followed – and indeed for the first two decades or so of the existence of Esperanto, about 90% of the movement’s subscribers and supporters were subjects of the Russian Empire. A majority of those were Jews as well, and though statistics are hard to come by, it might be fair to estimate that perhaps as much as a quarter of the present Esperantist community is Jewish.

Esperanto Society President Jakub Szapiro and member Abraham Zbar. From the Joseph and Margit Hoffman Judaica Postcard Collection, part of the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Esperanto emerged in the conditions of the Jewish Diaspora, addressed its concerns, was suffused with its hopes, and was shaped by its linguistic environment. It attracted a disproportionately large number of Jewish adherents and its enemies attacked it as a Jewish language. In many ways, it was and continues to be.


Generations of Esperantists

The geographical trajectory of Zamenhof’s life matched the Diasporist aspect of his universalist convictions: he traveled within Europe to congresses, but never set foot in the Land of Israel. Indeed, he never lived permanently very far from his birthplace, spending much of his youth and all his adult life in the poverty-stricken Jewish neighborhood of Warsaw where his parents had moved the family in his boyhood. His oculist medical practice, in keeping with his humanitarian ideals, served the community while barely supporting his own family. He charged his patients the nominal sum of 20 kopeks a visit. Like Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the father of modern Hebrew, he received some financial aid from his father-in-law to augment the meager income with which he provided for his wife and three children. Much of the expense of printing and mailing Esperanto periodicals and other publications came out of his own pocket. The three Zamenhof children, Adam, Sofia, and Lidia, were devoted to their father’s cause, yet though Doctor Hopeful had placed his confidence in the lands of exile, his children paid the ultimate price for that decision.

Zamenhof. From the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel

One daughter, Lidia, born in 1904, embraced the universalist Baha’i faith, a creed proclaimed by Baha’ullah, an Iranian mystic of the mid-19th century whom his fellow Muslims executed as a heretic. The Baha’i leadership looked favorably on Esperanto: the leader ‘Abd al-Baha encouraged it and Mirza Muhammad Labib taught it in Iran to Baha’is. Lidia traveled to America in 1938 to propagate the new religion and teach Esperanto. Despite the events of Kristallnacht in November of that year and the swiftly worsening plight of the Jews in Europe, the American government turned down her petition for an extension of her visa, claiming that her work as a teacher had violated its conditions. The Baha’i leader Shoghi Effendi, her spiritual guide and close friend, refused politely and inexplicably to help her find refuge in British Mandate Palestine, where the religion still has its center, a golden-domed building surrounded by Persian gardens overlooking Haifa. So she returned to Poland in November 1938.

The following September, the Germans destroyed the Zamenhof house and its priceless Esperanto archive in their terror bombing of the Polish capital. The family moved to an older home, within the area soon to be demarcated as the Warsaw Ghetto. Zamenhof’s son Adam was killed in prison by the Germans as a hostage in the early days of the occupation, and the Nazis murdered both daughters in the death camp at Treblinka later on, during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. Their house was right next to the Umschlagplatz, the space into which the Jews were herded before boarding the trains for deportation, mainly to Treblinka.

Jews awaiting deportation at the Umschlagplatz in the Warsaw Ghetto (Public domain)

The fate of the international language under fascism was grim. In Mein Kampf, Hitler had condemned Esperanto as part of the Jewish world conspiracy, and the regime outlawed the international language in Germany. To the east, the situation was little better: Esperanto had flourished in the young Soviet Union, where it was seen as a means of getting the workers of the world to unite. But there, too, the Stalin regime, suspicious of its cosmopolitanism and the contacts it facilitated between Soviet citizens and foreigners, banned it and executed numerous Esperantists. Yet the movement and many of its adherents survived the dark years. Following liberation, in 1946 Esperantists planted a green flag on the mound of rubble where Dr. Zamenhof’s home had stood. Zamenhof’s gravestone, a handsome monument of gray Aberdeen marble, is still standing in the Warsaw Jewish cemetery. His new language survived and survives still – out of the hundreds invented in the optimistic 19th century it is indeed the only one that has endured.

Book on Esperanto published by Israel’s Ministry of Education and Culture, 1967. From the National Library of Israel collection


Poster advertising Esperanto courses in Tel Aviv, 1984. From the National Library of Israel collection

The hymn of the Esperanto movement became and remains a poem Zamenhof composed, “La Espero” – “The Hope”. It is often sung ceremonially at Esperanto congresses and other gatherings, where Zamenhof’s rallying cry still echoes: “Let us labor and hope!” Some estimates optimistically place the number of people familiar to some degree with the language at nearly two million, and it is now among the languages taught on the popular website and app Duolingo. But there are only perhaps some ten thousand fully fluent speakers. There are also a small number of native speakers of Esperanto (known as “denaskoj” – “from-birth(er)s”) – people who learned it from parents who used both it and a native natural language at home. The Internet (“reto” in Esperanto) has enhanced Zamenhof’s vision of a linguistic community with a home in the noosphere, though the high ideals of Dr. Esperanto remain far from being realized.

Yet now, in the 21st century, what is it Esperantists are hoping for?


Legacy on a coin

In 2007, the Coins and Medals Corporation of the State of Israel struck a handsome medal in gold, silver, and bronze issues to commemorate the publication of Zamenhof’s book, La Unua Libro. It is a generous tribute by the victorious Zionist project, with its invented language, to an alternative vision, with its own language, that through no fault of its own did not attain its highest aspirations. I have the bronze medal, which is the largest in size of the series, before me as I write these lines describing it. It is a handsome object. The medal is a dignified tribute to a beloved son of the Jewish people, to his genius, his noble, self-sacrificing ideal and invention; the design breathes the artist’s respect and affection for his subject.

State Medal, Esperanto (Courtesy: Israel Coins and Medals Corp.)

On the obverse is a frontal portrait of the gentle, bushy-bearded Zamenhof, his spectacles perched on his nose. He has on a bow tie, pleated dress shirt and three-piece suit (there is just the hint of a waistcoat below his right lapel), and above his heart the five-pointed green star is inset in enamel on his left lapel: he’s all ready to address a “kongreso” somewhere in Europe, sometime in the halcyon years before the Great War. To the right of his head, though, the inscription is in Hebrew: “Yotser ha-safah ha-beyn-le’umit Esperanto” – “Creator of the international language Esperanto”. His name appears in both Hebrew and Latin characters. Below, there is a rendering of his signature, almost as though to say, “I may have invented Esperanto, but I wrote the above statement in Hebrew myself” (as indeed he was capable of doing).

The medal’s reverse shows a stylized, ziggurat-like tower of Babel with an ascending spiral path leading up to the new reversed-and-joined-E symbol of the Esperanto movement, and along the rim is the Biblical verse partially in Esperanto and fully in Hebrew, “Va-yehi kol ha-arets safah aḥat u-devarim aḥadim/ Unu lingvo kaj unu parolmaniero” – “(And all the earth was of) one language and one manner of speech” (Genesis 11:1). At the base of the tower is the word “Esperanto” in Latin script, flanked by little male and female silhouettes holding hands. Letters of many languages, including Chinese, Greek, Sanskrit (Devanagari), Latin, and Russian, are worked in delicate relief on the surface of the tower. The Hebrew words for “One” and “peace” stand out, the latter echoed by the equivalent in Esperanto and Russian, as the emblem of Esperanto just above the tower’s summit attests to the nobility of human striving to resolve the disunity of Babel. Towards the top of the tower, delicate and faint, but unmistakable in its script and message, is the Hebrew word “hatikvah” – “hope”.


This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.


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