Ludwik Zamenhof ( Ludwik Lejzor Łazarz Zamenhof) (15.12.1859 Białystok – 14.04.1917 Warszawa) – doctor, creator of language Esperanto
Ludwik Zamenhof is practically only known as the creator of Esperanto; he is remembered as such thanks to the users and researchers of the language. What remains to be uncovered by the general public is his outstanding intellectual output, including recently discovered works which astonish the reader with their visionary character. It should be pointed out that a huge part of Zamenhof’s writings was burnt on 25 September 1939, when his family archives in Warsaw were destroyed during a German raid. He created Esperanto at the age of 28; the language never required any revisions. Conversely, he devoted half a century to developing his social and religious ideas, constantly modifying them and never quite reaching final conclusions. It is therefore worth taking a look at Zamenhof as a fascinating intellectual.
Zamenhof rejected all the Jewish ideologies of his time and instead created his own – first Hillelism (named after the religious leader Hillel) and then Humanitism (Homaranismo in Esperanto), which, “without uprooting a man from his homeland, his language and his religion, will enable him to overcome all the contradictions of his national-religious background and communicate with all people, of all languages and religions, on a neutrally human basis, according to the principle of reciprocity.”
The creator of Esperanto saw more disadvantages than advantages in each of the proposed solutions to the Jewish question of the time. The territorialists, he believed, would not be able to gather several million Jews in one place in order to create an independent state, it was an impossible endeavour. He rejected Yiddishism as well.
“Admittedly, we, Eastern European Jews, have a common language, […] a jargon. […] But a nation using a Germanic dialect in the Russian-Polish zone between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea would never be recognised by any Hebrew party […].” Despite this reluctant attitude, Zamenhof edited the first Yiddish grammar book to ever be published. The publication, discovered decades later, made such a great impression on Dovid Katz (one of the most prominent Yiddish specialists) that he wrote: “even today, if it were published, it would be a historical and scientific sensation.”
Zamenhof most adamantly opposed assimilationist programmes, partially also the Haskalah, of which he wrote: “He did not believe that the Jewish masses alone would submit themselves to any religious or social reform. It is the responsibility of the intelligentsia to enlighten the masses.”
He also definitively rejected Zionism: “But even if one were to believe in miracles and assume that all Jews would appear in Palestine… then by analogy with the other three expulsions, and even more so today, when Palestine is located on a ‘volcano,’ it would only take several dozen or a hundred years... for the fourth exile!”
Zamenhof pondered on how Judaism could resolve the national question and deliberated on the place which should be given to all other nations who were not the chosen one. He ultimately came to the conclusion that being chosen was not an exaltation, but an additional obligation imposed by God on Jews – an obligation to bear witness to goyim.
National ideas need to be “reformed,” because a nation is an ideological construct, and the real life of an individual does not take place in a nation but among neighbours, in towns and villages, in a region. How is the individual to blame for having been born here and not there, for having been brought up in this and not that religion or culture, for having been taught this and not that language?
Esperanto was to be the answer to this dilemma. A new, just social-national order was to be guaranteed by the principle of ius sermonis, i.e. the use of a neutral language that would cancel out the ethnic, national, linguistic, and even cultural differences of multi-national and multi-ethnic Europe. Before World War I, Esperanto enjoyed a popularity which today seems unimaginable, but its development was thwarted first by France in the League of Nations in 1922 and then by the rise of totalitarian systems. Such circumstances would be the nail in the coffin of any other language subjected to psychological oppression and stripped of state patronage, legal protection or subsidies. And yet Esperanto lives on!
In the period when the Polish state was nowhere to be found on the political maps of Europe, Esperanto was a powerful reminder of the fate of Poles for all Europeans. Poland therefore has a debt of gratitude to Zamenhof and Esperanto; a debt which, to put it bluntly, is yet to be repaid.
Promoting a “neutral” international language like Esperanto did not lay in the national interest of any nation. Instead, the languages which managed to achieve the supranational status did so primarily by means of economic power boosted by colonial conquests.
World War II saw an unimaginable amount of genocide, destruction, and dehumanisation. The conflict buried all noble ideas and had consequences which nobody had been able to foresee. Zamenhof was an advocate of pacifism as a political measure. Just before his death he wrote: “If somebody at my house were to use my work for the benefit of another ethnic group […], I would need to console myself with the hope that this abnormal situation would disappear sooner or later, and that my children would be fully motivated to work, something which fate has not spared me.” As it turned out, pacifism was unable to spare his children, his people, or the other peoples which fell victim to the Holocaust.
It is impossible to summarise Zamenhof’s entire intellectual output in a single text, especially since it still requires further analysis. May the following words by Agnieszka Jagodzińska serve as an apt conclusion: “[…] Zamenhof’s texts still remain in the ‘before’ phase […].”
prof. Walter Żelazny
- Baudouin de Courtenay J. M., “W sprawie języka sztucznego międzynarodowego w ogólności, a esperanto w szczególności,” Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny 1912, no. 187.
- Boulton M., Zamenhof, Creator of Esperanto, London 1980.
- Caubel A., “La raison contre Babel,” Editions de l'Union rationaliste 1987, no. 197.
- Cherpillod A., Zamenhof et le judaïsme, Blanchetière 1997.
- Clément M., L'homaranisme. De la sagesse d’Hillel aux lumières juives (IVe édition, revue et corrigée), Michel Clément Ph.D. [online] https://web.archive.org/web/20130726040447/http://www.adhuc.eu/Homaranisme.pdf [accessed: 12 Apr 2021].
- Janton P., L'espéranto, Paris 1989.
- Jurkowski M., Od wieży Babel do języka Kosmitów (o językach sztucznych, uniwersalnych i międzynarodowych), Białystok 1986.
- Korĵenkov A., Homarano. La vivo, verkoj kaj ideoj de d-ro L. L. Zamenhof, Kaliningrado – Kaunas 2009.
- Künzli A., L. L. Zamenhof (1859–1917). Esperanto, Hillelismus (Homaranismus) und die „jüdische Frage” in Ost– und Westeuropa, Wiesbaden 2010.
- Ludwik Zamenhof wobec „kwestii żydowskiej”, ed. A. Jagodzińska, Kraków – Budapeszt 2002.
- Mi estas homo. Originalaj verkoj de d-ro L. L. Zamenhof, ed. A. Korĵenkov, Kaliningrad 2006.
- Zamenhof L., Hillielizm. Projekt rieszenija jewriejskawo woprosa, Helsinki 1972.
- Żelazny W., “Les idées sociales et religieuses suscitées par le phénomène des langues dites artificielles (aspect interlinguistique et social),” Esperantologio / Esperanto Studies 2001, no. 2.
- Żelazny W., Ludwik Zamenhof. Życie i dzieło. Recepcja i reminiscencje. Wybór tekstów, Kraków 2011.