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The Secret Jewish History of Esperanto

The deadly pogroms that swept through Eastern Europe following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881 encouraged some Jews to become socialists, others Zionists, others emigrants. In 1887, Ludwik Zamenhof, a Jewish ophthalmologist born in Bialystok and based in Warsaw, Poland, became the inventor of the most widely spoken constructed language, what came to be called Esperanto — that is, Hope. The hope of its early champions was that universal adoption of Esperanto would herald world peace. Initially conceived by Zamenhof as an antidote to anti-Semitism, Esperanto was designed as an instrument of global harmony, a bridge connecting antagonists who fail to speak the same language. Its invention was, according to the grandiose claim of its inventor, as momentous as “the discovery of America, the use of steam engines and the introduction of the alphabet.” However, according to the Esperanto Vikipedio, the language currently claims perhaps 2 million speakers, about the same number as those who speak Latvian. And world peace remains elusive.

In “Bridge of Words,” Esther Schor provides a biography of Zamenhof and a history of his linguistic creation, as well as an account of her own adventures in Esperantujo, the diaspora of Esperanto speakers scattered throughout the world. A professor of English at Princeton University and the author of a study of Emma Lazarus, Schor describes her book as “a hybrid, history and memoir. It’s about Zamenhof, his language, his dreams, the people he entrusted to build Esperanto, then and now.” It’s also about Schor, who spent seven years on this project, becoming an Esperantist and using the language to cushion a midlife crisis and the collapse of her marriage.

Zamenhof drew his lexicon and syntax from existing languages, particularly those in the Romance family, to create an efficient, practical system of communication that he believed to be “so simple that even the most uneducated person can learn it very well in one week (and children can make it their own from birth).” The profusion of educational centers and electronic resources has made it even easier to learn Esperanto than it was during Zamenhof’s time. After a three-week total immersion summer program she attended at the University of California, San Diego, Schor is confident enough in her grasp of the language to attend international Esperanto congresses in Turkey, Poland, Vietnam and Cuba, where she is fascinated by the cosmopolitan, polyglot idealists and kooks she encounters. In her conversations with other Esperantists, she tries to avoid what they call “crocodiling” — reverting to a natural language. She concludes her travels in Esperantujo with an account of her visit to Bona Espero, a collective farm for wayward and abandoned children. Founded in 1974 by dedicated Esperantists from Italy, it is located in a remote, barely accessible swath of Brazil. But while somewhat effective in salvaging troubled lives, the feckless idealists who run Bona Espero have had little success in persuading its young residents to speak Esperanto.

Almost from its inception, Esperanto has been driven by conflicts and schisms reminiscent of contemporary divisions among Jews — Yiddishists versus Hebraists, secularists versus religious, Ashkenazim versus Sephardim, Diasporists versus Zionists, etc. Encouraging others to take it up and renew it, Zamenhof refused to be possessive about his new language. However, disputes over neologisms and unusual locutions were not resolved entirely by the creation of the Akademio de Esperanto, a body that, like France’s Académie Française, has had mixed results in prescribing and proscribing the way the constructed language is actually used. In 1907, when Louis de Beaufront, an apostate Esperantist, created Ido as a more consistent and effective version of Esperanto, it drew away a fair percentage of those speaking Zamenhof’s linguistic invention. Undercut in turn by efforts to reform the reform language, Ido faded, and Esperanto asserted its supremacy among constructed languages.

Schor traces the vicissitudes of the Universala Esperanto-Asocio, the leading international organization of Esperantists. Challenged by rival organizations and various national groups, UEA shifted policies as its leadership vacillated between using Esperanto as an instrument of pacifist ideals and insisting on strict neutrality among competing political ideologies and national interests. In repressive societies of Asia and Eastern Europe that tolerated Esperanto, the language enabled dissidents to at least imagine reaching beyond closed borders, which is why the number of speakers declined after the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, despots often vilified Esperanto and persecuted its speakers. They were purged and executed in the Soviet Union. In “Mein Kampf,” Adolf Hitler, projecting German as the proper language of all Europeans, warned that Jews were using Esperanto to try to extend their insidious influence. The Nazi régime banned Esperanto, which Josef Goebbels stigmatized as “the language of Jews and communists.”

Ludwik Zamenhof died in 1917, but Lidia Zamenhof, his daughter, continued to champion the Esperanto cause. She became a member of the Bahá’í Faith, which encouraged the adoption of Esperanto as a global auxiliary language. However, it was her Jewish identity that led to Lidia Zamenhof’s death in Treblinka; her siblings, Adam and Sofia Zamenhof, were also murdered in the Holocaust.

Describing herself as “a practicing, public Jew,” Schor is particularly attentive to the Jewish dimensions of Esperanto. She notes that Zamenhof, before inventing Esperanto, tried to modernize Yiddish with the Roman alphabet and a rationalized spelling. Like Felix Adler, the rabbi’s son who founded the Ethical Culture Movement, Zamenhof became a universalist without entirely erasing traces of his Jewish origins. Beyond the purely linguistic appeal of a simplified universal language, he envisaged Esperanto as the vehicle for what he called Hilelismo, an elaboration on Hillel’s dictum: “Do not do unto others what is hateful to you.” Esperanto would be the means to expand Hillel’s ideals beyond the Jewish community to encompass all of humanity. The fierce opposition that Hilelismo’s Jewish coloration aroused in other Esperantists proved that Zamenhof’s language was fully capable of expressing every sentiment, even anti-Semitism.

Steven G. Kellman is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth” (Norton, 2005) and “The Translingual Imagination” (University of Nebraska Press, 2000).

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