LL Zamenhof is the inventor of the most successful artificial tongue on Earth: the international auxiliary language of Esperanto, the same one which has become a viral cultural artifact now in the age of Duolingo–where it is approaching half a million learners. The idea of Esperanto (meaning, “he who has hope”) was not to replace natural languages but to become a politically-neutral secondary language for everyone, one where no one feels superior to anyone else.
But Zamenhof felt that, like all cultures, the language of Esperanto needed a heart in order to resonate with people. Being an idealist, he came up with a simple humanist doctrine which he labeled homaranismo, an esperanto term which translates as “humanitarianism”. It was a form of religious humanism influenced by “hilelismo”, an ethical philosophy based on the golden rule and, loosely, on the teachings of a contemporary of Jesus who left a lasting impression on Judaism: Rabbi Hillel. Like Esperanto itself, the philosophy was not meant to replace any of the world’s religions, but to serve as an international, neutral ethical and cultural bridge where the diverse groups of humanity could come together, that would lead to peaceful coexistence and a global, cosmopolitan shared experience and identity.
Zamenhof would later point out that his Jewishness had everything to do with the Esperanto and homaranismo projects: he had lived during an age of increased anti-semitism and wanted to help build a society where similar prejudices would not have fertile ground to flourish.
But this idealism did not yield the fruits Zamenhof hoped for. Eventually, this homaranismo ended up having too much of a Jewish and religious flavor, particularly for the French members of the early Esperanto community who were strongly secular, and the entire idea of needing a philosophy to sustain Esperanto was discarded. It became a purely secular language, with homaranismo being merely a side curiosity.
After LL Zamenhoff’s death, his daughter Lidia dedicated a huge amount of energy to the spread of Esperanto, but she also adopted homaranismo and unfortunately around 1925 she became a member of the Bahá’í Faith, convinced that this universalist monotheistic faith held the prophetic spirit of homaranismo and had the power to bring it into the culture. The Bahá’í faith teaches, among other things, that the global community must adopt an international auxiliary language. Abdul Bahá, the son of the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was an adamant defender of Esperanto.
When the German occupation of Poland began, Lidia was arrested and confined to the Warsaw ghetto. She was offered help and escape several times by other Bahá’ís and Esperantists, but declined. She wrote a letter explaining how her faith in God led her to choose to remain in Europe, a decision which led to her death and that of her entire family:
“Do not think of putting yourself in danger; I know that I must die but I feel it is my duty to stay with my people. God grant that out of our sufferings a better world may emerge. I believe in God. I am a Bahá’í and will die a Bahá’í. Everything is in His hands.”
She was transported to the extermination camp in Treblinka, where she was murdered sometime after the summer of 1942. The idealism that she adopted, influenced by her father’s idealism, demonstrates some of the dangers of religion, and also illuminates the secular nature of Zionism as an ideology of survival, of pragmatism, of self-sufficiency, and of ownership of one’s own destiny. A very strong case can be made, looking at Lidia’s misplaced trust in the divine, for secular Zionism.
Perhaps if Lidia had remained an atheist (as she was reported to be in 1925 prior to her Bahá’í conversion) and, rather than leave everything in God’s hands, gone to Israel or the US, she and all her children would have survived the holocaust and lived to continue a vibrant Esperanto culture and activism. Everyone in Zamenhof’s family died, except for only one of his grandchildren–Louis-Christophe Zaleski-Zamenhof. He has been somewhat active in the Esperanto movement, and has no known heirs.
Esperanto was nearly brought to nothing by the II World War, but is reemerging. Many of us in the Esperanto community still believe in the need for an international, auxiliary language–particularly in the aftermath of Brexit–and celebrate LL Zamenhof as a kind of culture hero for giving us the easiest to learn language on Earth. However, we reject his idealism and affirm a pragmatic approach. We should reject idealisms of all kinds and keep our feet grounded, bringing the beautiful legacy of Esperanto to Earth where it is needed.
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Some songs in Esperanto
Dankon (Thank You), by a young talented German reggae artist Jonny M
Mi sopiras, by Paŭlo Moĵajev