This Flamboyant New York Jew Amended Black Legal History

Eight Black youths were hastily sentenced to death in 1931 Alabama. Global outcry ensued, and a flamboyant New York Jewish lawyer was sent down to defend them...

The Scottsboro Boys in a pamphlet published by the International Labor Defense, 1931 (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the family of Dr. Maurice Jackson and Laura Ginsburg / Public domain)

From the hobo jungles of the American south to the Yiddish stages of Eastern Europe, news of the affair and the injustice that followed spread quickly.

Two white women of “easy virtue” (in the words of the judge in a subsequent legal proceeding), had claimed to have been raped by a gang of Black teenagers. Following a three-day trial, all but one of the nine defendants were sentenced to death.

The “Scottsboro Boys,” as they came to be known, lacked suitable legal representation. The case was almost completely based on questionable testimonies, with little evidence presented before the all-white jury. Hundreds of angry white locals kept at bay outside the courtroom by National Guard troops had demanded justice, insinuating that they would take matters into their own hands in case the court happened to not reach the “right” conclusion.

Outcry following the death sentences came quickly. Civil and Black rights groups across the United States denounced the trial and its unjust outcome. Justice for the young defendants was quickly adopted as a cause by activists across the globe. Protests were held outside American embassies and consulates abroad.

Protestors on the cover of a pamphlet published by the International Labor Defense, 1931 (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of the family of Dr. Maurice Jackson and Laura Ginsburg / Public domain)
Demonstrators, including members of the Finnish Workers Club, protesting the death sentence imposed on the Scottsboro Trial defendants, 1931 (The New York Public Library Digital Collections / Public domain)

In the years (and decades) to come, the affair inspired countless works of literature across the racial and geographic spectrum, from Langston Hughes to Yiddish playwright Leib Malach, whose work based on the events debuted in Warsaw in 1935, as the actual case’s legal proceedings were still ongoing. The locally and internationally acclaimed play highlighted the injustices of the American South, resonating with Eastern European Jewish audiences. Even though the real case took place in the neighboring state of Alabama, Malach named his work “Mississippi”.

Poster for the original 1935 Warsaw production of Leib Malach’s “Mississippi”.  From the Leib Malach Archive, National Library of Israel

Soon after the initial verdict in the Scottsboro case, one of America’s most celebrated lawyers – a New York Jew who had never lost a single capital case – would be called in to lead the retrial efforts.

Not yet 40, Samuel Leibowitz was by then one of the most well-known, successful and flamboyant defense attorneys in New York, defending numerous well-known clients including notorious mobster Al Capone.

By late 1932, the International Labor Defense (ILD), a legal organization founded by Clarence Darrow among others, which was associated with the Communist movement, had taken the lead in defending the Black youths. The case was generally seen by the communist leadership as an opportunity to not only achieve justice for the “boys”, but also to secure significant support for communism among Blacks in the United States.

Samuel Leibowitz, however, was not a communist. Before agreeing to defend the Scottsboro Boys alongside the ILD’s general counsel, Joseph Brodsky, Leibowitz demanded that he be allowed to manage the defense without any political interference. He also refused any payment for his services, paying all expenses out of pocket.

He had reviewed the case thoroughly and perhaps out of arrogance or simple naïveté, Leibowitz was convinced that there was no way he could lose.

According to Leibowitz’s son, who wrote a book chronicling his father’s legal career, the elder Leibowitz told Brodsky:

“… no matter what the prejudice may be, there is a basic rock of decency in every individual… We cannot lose this Scottsboro case. A Chinaman or a Zulu lawyer, barely able to speak pidgin English, must get an acquittal if the evidence at hand is presented to even twelve of the most bigoted, prejudiced creatures that can be corralled into a jury box.”

The fact that Leibowitz was Jewish and brought in by communists certainly did not help his cause – nor that of his clients – once the retrial commenced. His style and bravado were not welcome in northern Alabama. His New York manner and approach were seen as discourteous, not suitable to Southern mores. The courtroom was appalled, for example, when at one point he demanded that the prosecutor address a Black witness as “Mr. Sandford”, rather than simply as “John.”

Leibowitz in the courtroom during the Scottsboro case. He used the trainset behind him to try and discredit the alleged victim’s account of the events. Published in The Forward on April 16, 1933; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Born in Romania, Leibowitz had immigrated to America with his family when he was four years old and studied law at the prestigious Cornell University. In an April 1933 interview in which he asserted that he was “strictly orthodox” and had had a Passover seder after he returned from the trial, Leibowitz exclaimed that “The snake of anti-Semitism cannot live in the spotlight of public opinion”. He recounted that when someone suggested he change his name to something less Jewish, “I promptly told him to go to hell.” And, in fact, antisemitism played little to no role in Leibowitz’s personal and professional life – until the Scottsboro case.

Published in The American Jewish World on April 14, 1933; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Prosecutor Wade Wright peppered his arguments with blatant antisemitic language and innuendo. After one of the alleged victims recanted her claim that she’d ever been raped at all, and her new testimony was corroborated by someone named Lester Carter, Wright referred to the man as “Mr. Carterinsky”, describing him as “the prettiest Jew” he had ever seen. Alluding to the traditional Jewish peddler, Wright declared that if Carter “had been with Brodsky another two weeks he would have been down here with a pack on his back a-trying to sell you goods…”

In his closing remarks, Wright asked the jury, “Is justice going to be bought and sold in Alabama with Jew money from New York?”

Leibowitz responded with the following words:

“I am proud of my state. I would die for it just as I would die for my nation. We have as decent people in New York as you have in Alabama. They talk about communists to befuddle you. I’m a Roosevelt Democrat and I served my country when the Stars and Stripes were in jeopardy and when there was no talk of Jew or Gentile, white or black…

And they talk of ‘Jew money from New York.’ I’m not getting a cent for my services, or even for the expenses for myself or my wife down here. I’m not interested in Communism or any other ‘ism’. I’m interested solely in seeing that that poor, moronic colored boy over there and his co-defendants in the other cases, get a square shake of the dice, because I believe, before God, they are the victims of a dastardly frameup…

Let them take me out and hang me. My mission will have been served if I get these unfortunates the same justice that I would seek to achieve for any of you gentlemen if you came to New York and were unjustly accused…”

He called the previous trials “an insult to God himself and a mockery of justice,” and argued that the prosecution was simply “appeal[ing] to prejudice, to sectionalism, to bigotry…”

Before the re-trial started, Brodsky had countered Leibowitz’s confidence, telling him that he would “be a sadder but wiser man” after the trial. And, in fact, Brodsky’s prediction proved more accurate than Leibowitz’s, as the first retrial ended with another guilty verdict and another death sentence.

Leibowitz called it “a black page in the history of American civilization…”

His participation and the involvement of other “outsiders” had not always been welcome, even by the defendants and their families themselves. It was sometimes seen as a distraction or even a hindrance, as the white jury resented the interference of the Northern outsiders. The defendants and their lawyers were surrounded by armed guards, following repeated threats to lynch them.

The Scottsboro Boys under heavy guard. Published in The Forward on April 7, 1933; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection
Leibowitz leaving the courthouse flanked by two bodyguards, who were appointed by the judge following threats to the lawyer’s life. Published in The Forward on December 2, 1933; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Yet Leibowitz and his team kept fighting. One of his main initial points of attack – that Blacks had been excluded from serving on the original jury – ultimately helped set an important legal precedent that would ensure Black inclusion on jury rolls across the United States.

The Scottsboro Boys spent years in prison, but thanks to the efforts of Leibowitz and others, they were all ultimately spared the death sentence. In the years and decades that followed, all of the “boys” had their convictions overturned or were pardoned. This included three posthumous pardons granted by the governor of Alabama in 2013, more than two decades after the last of the Scottsboro Boy passed away.

Leibowitz stayed in touch with some of the Scottsboro Boys, even providing personal and professional help and support. In 1937, there were reports that his birthday would be celebrated as a “national” holiday by the American Black community, though that didn’t seem to ever materialize in any notable way. Leibowitz defended a few more high-profile clients and then became a judge, ultimately serving on the New York Supreme Court.

According to Quentin Reynolds’s book, Courtroom, a few years after Leibowitz’s involvement in the Scottsboro trials, he was on vacation in Miami and decided to visit a local courtroom in session. He noticed that there was a single Black man on the jury and when the proceedings recessed, he told the defense attorney that he had a question.

“I’m from the North, and I never knew you allowed Negroes on your juries here in the South. Isn’t that something new?” he asked.

The lawyer bitterly responded, “Yes it is something new. This is the first time in our state we have had a n***er on a jury and it’s all on account of a son-of-a-bitch named Leibowitz from New York. He came down to Alabama a few years ago to try a case and somehow he got to the Supreme Court in Washington, and damned if we haven’t had to put n***ers on our juries ever since.”


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.

Photographed Together: Begin’s Father and Sharon’s Grandfather

Long before the State of Israel, the two men worked together at a Jewish bank and Jewish self-defense organization in Brest-Litovsk

A 1906 photograph released by the National Library of Israel presents rare visual evidence of the connection between Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon that existed even before the two future Israeli prime ministers were born. It is known that the Begin and Sharon (formerly Sheinerman) families both hailed from Brest-Litovsk, in modern-day Belarus. Sharon’s grandmother was even the midwife at Menachem Begin’s birth.

Yet this photo, which belonged to Sharon’s father, Shmuel Sheinerman, provides perhaps the only extant visual evidence of the historic connection.

Affixed to a piece of cardboard, the photo shows directors and staff of the Loan and Savings Bank in Brest-Litovsk. The bank was founded in 1905 to serve Jews, who suffered discrimination and persecution at that time.

Staff of the Loan and Savings Bank, Brest-Litovsk, 1906. Sitting on the far right is Ariel Sharon’s grandfather, Mordechai Sheinerman, and next to him is Menachem Begin’s father, Ze’ev Dov Begin.

The same year the bank was established, as pogroms against Jews took place across Eastern Europe, the two also worked together as part of the local Jewish defense organization. The Kishinev Pogrom of 1903 had led to a national awakening among many Jews in the Russian Empire, including efforts to better organize self-defense organizations like the one in which Sheinerman and Begin took active roles.

Seventy-six years later, Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon served together as Israeli prime minister and minister of defense, respectively.

Menachem Begin and Ariel Sharon, 1978. From the Dan Hadani Archive, part of the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

More than one million photos documenting Jewish and Israeli life since the mid-19th century are available online through the National Library of Israel.

Did Esperanto Answer the ‘Jewish Question’?

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

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.

This Jewish War Hero Protested the Nazis… Then Helped Defeat Them

A decorated German soldier in World War I, Richard Stern opposed Nazism from within. After fleeing, he joined the US Army at age 43, and soon became a hero there, as well...

Colorized photo of Richard Stern as a German soldier in World War I (Courtesy: Jack Romberg)

What do we view as heroism?  We acknowledge those who win medals for amazing actions done in the military, honoring them for performing in an admirable way during battle.  We see those people as heroic because they act with bravery despite the life threatening circumstances of war.

Often, however, we do not look the same way at protestors. Perhaps we disagree with the issues they stand for.  Perhaps, if there are many other protestors or if we ourselves are even protesting along with them, it becomes hard to see the act as heroic or exceptional.

Yet, a protest can most certainly also be an heroic act.

This photo is of Richard Stern standing in the doorway of his store in Cologne, German on April 1, 1933:

A Nazi SA soldier is standing next to him.  Stern was protesting the boycott of Jewish businesses initiated by the German government of Hitler and the Nazi party, who had taken power just two months earlier.  This was Hitler’s first official action against the German Jews.

Stern turned out to be the only Jewish protestor against the Nazis in Cologne on April 1, 1933.  Today, the photo is featured in at least five different museums in Germany.

On January 31, 1933 the Stern family along with all the Jews in Cologne, had seen a shocking number of Nazi flags hanging from stores and houses all over the city.  It was a celebration of Hitler and the Nazi party’s rise to power.

On February 17, Hitler ordered all local police headquarters to create working relationships with the Nazi party’s paramilitary SA and SS units, helping to set the stage for the Nazis’ official suppression of German Jews.  A detailed plan was put together for the boycott of all Jewish businesses to take place on April 1, 1933.  SA soldiers were ordered to stand in front of Jewish stores to warn German citizens not to enter them.

In addition, the Nazis began to take control of all of the news organizations.  They wanted newspapers to support the actions against the Jews, so their planning instructions stated, “if newspapers do not do this or do too little, they must immediately be removed from every house where Germans live.”

Most of the Jewish community knew the boycott was coming.

Richard Stern told his family and friends, “I cannot be silent.”

He was a strong supporter of the Weimar Republic’s civil rights and was an active member of the Social Democratic Party.  Stern believed that other Jews would join him in protesting.  However, the bulk of Jewish leaders in Cologne believed that finding a way to cooperate with the Nazi government would ultimately protect German Jewry.  They were afraid to take an open stand against the oppression of Jewish people, so Richard Stern found that he was the city’s sole protestor.

Stern felt that protesting as a war veteran would be the most effective action, and so he donned the Iron Cross he was awarded in World War I.

He had been drafted in June of 1917, a point in the war when most Germans knew they would lose. Nonetheless, Stern acted bravely enough to be awarded the Iron Cross in August of 1918, very close to the end of the conflict.

Following announcement of the 1933 boycott, Stern wrote a pamphlet condemning the Nazis for their actions against the Jewish people despite the dedication of Jewish soldiers like him during World War I. The pamphlet declared that “We see this action against German Judaism as an insult to the memory of 12,000 German combat soldiers of the Jewish faith killed in action,” and he signed it “Combat Veteran Richard Stern.”

The pamphlet Stern printed and handed out (Courtesy: Jack Romberg)

Stern handed the pamphlets out to everyone passing by his store.  Look at Stern’s face in the photo.  He is smiling, displaying his feeling of being a true soldier, while the SA “soldier” standing next to him was an impostor.  When the Nazis took power, typical SA soldiers were young, never having truly served in the German army, and certainly not in any fields of combat comparable to those in which Stern and others like him had fought.

Richard Stern even gave the pamphlet to the SA soldier standing next to him.  This was particularly brave as there was a Nazi newspaper station right next to his store.  An hour later he was arrested and taken to police headquarters.  While he was sitting there, he felt nervous.  A police officer who, like many others had joined the Nazi party because of Hitler’s orders, approached Stern because he knew him.

He asked, “What are you doing here?”

“They arrested me,” Richard Stern answered.

“You better get out of here.”

The policeman saw Richard Stern as a friend because he was also a German war veteran and sneaked him out the back door.

As the Nazi actions against German Jews got worse through the 1930s, there were times when Richard Stern felt fear for himself, his sister and her son.  He became determined to get the three of them out of Germany and to safety in the United States.  Yet before he managed to get out, he continued to help his fellow Jews.  When Germany took over Austria in March of 1938, a chunk of Austrian Jews began to flee to try and escape the Nazis.  A number came to Cologne and Stern harbored them and tried to help them escape to Belgium.

After Kristallnacht, in the fall of 1938, he connected to family in New York and finally succeeded in immigrating there in May of 1939.

Once the United States entered the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Richard Stern, then 43 years old, volunteered for the American army so that he could fight against the Nazis.  He was accepted in October of 1942 and began training with the engineering battalion to which he was assigned. Stern refused an honorable discharge due to his advanced age, and by the end of October 1943, his battalion was involved in difficult battles in Italy.  Before he deployed he donated his German war medals (including one he received from Hitler himself, who had not realized that Stern was Jewish) to the national scrap drive in support of the war effort. Then, in early January of 1944, he became a hero in the American army for saving his company, which had been surrounded by German machine gunners at the top of Italy’s Mount Porchia.

He reportedly persuaded the Germans to surrender “if they wished some day to return to the Fatherland.”  Stern was promoted and awarded a Silver Star. His valor was reported in newspapers around the world and he was even played by a famous actor on the radio.

Feature on Richard Stern published in The American Jewish World on June 2, 1944; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

What do we view as Richard Stern’s heroism?

His actions in World War I and World War II, each for a different side, fit how people usually judge a hero, yet was his protest against the Nazis and standing up for civil rights any less exceptional?

Richard Stern did not succeed in causing any significant change in Germany through his moral and principled stand.  He certainly had moments of fear and doubt, yet the feelings of failure he felt following the protest caused him to be even more determined to find a way to continue opposing the Nazis and Hitler.

Heroism is not just a particular action.  It is also devotion to proper morality.  Richard Stern teaches us that.


W. Jack Romberg is the author of the book A Doorway to Heroism: A Decorated German-Jewish Soldier Who Became an American Hero, which tells the story of his great-uncle, Richard Stern.

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.