Bridge of Words




ESPERANTO ANll the dream of a IJniversal Lancuage


mfitaopolifan lioŭlci hknky hŭlt an[? ctjmranv nnw yoiik

Begin Reading Table of Contents About the Author Copyright Page

al samideanoj pasintaj kaj nuntempaj,

koran, verdan dankon

to Esperantists past and present,

green and heartfelt thanks

It is not down in any map; true places never are. Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

Author's Note

Because I have used pseudonyms for most of the Esperantists mentioned, I have reversed the usual practice of using asterisks to indicate pseudonyms. Thus pseudonyms appear without asterisks, and asterisks are reserved for actual names (at first mention). Historical figures and cited authors are referred to by their actual names, without asterisks.

All translations from Esperanto are my own, except where otherwise indicated in the notes.


On the muggy July afternoon when I visited the Okopowa Street Cemetery, the dead Jews who'd slept on while the Nazis packed their descendants into cattle cars bound for Treblinka were still asleep. After hours tracking the contours of the Ghetto behind a detachment of Israeli soldiers, I was relieved to be among the lush ferns, rusted grilles, and mossy stones. Here and there, tipped and broken monuments had settled where they'd fallen among yellow wallflowers. In other sections, weeded, swept, and immaculately tended, huge monuments incised with Hebrew characters bore a heavy load of sculpted fruits, animals, priestly hands, and the tools of trades. The stones were cool to the touch, amid a musky odor of rotting leaves.

Among the largest monuments in the cemetery—the baroque monument to the actor Ester Rachel Kaminska; the porphyry stone of writer I. L. Peretz; the ponderous granite tomb of Adam Czerniakow, who after pleading in vain for the lives of the Ghetto's orphans took his own—was a large sarcophagus. On top rested a stone sphere the size of a bowling ball. Below a ledge of marble chips planted with plastic begonias was a large mosaic, a sea-green star with a white letter E at the center. Rays of blue, red, and white flared out in all directions. It was gaudy and amateurish, awkward in execution. The inscription read:



naskita 15. xii. 1859. mortis 14. iv. 1917

Esperanto: I recalled one glancing encounter with it when I was twenty-three, an American in self-imposed exile, living in a chilly flat in London. The reign of Sid Vicious was about to be usurped by Margaret Thatcher, and the pittance I earned in publishing was just enough to buy standing room at Friday matinees and an occasional splurge on mascara. My boyfriend, Leo, and I found a rock-bottom price for a week in the Soviet Union; the only catch was that January, the cheapest time of the year to go, was also the coldest: in Moscow, 28 degrees Fahrenheit below; in Leningrad, a balmy zero. Leo took his parka out of storage; I borrowed warm boots, a fake-fur coat, and a real fur hat, and off we went. (In fact, I found it much warmer in the Soviet Union than in London, at least inside—chalk that up to central heating, which I could not afford.)

At the Hermitage, I wandered over to a large, amber-hued painting labeled PeMĈpaHgT. Pembrandt?—no, Rembrandt. A prodigal myself, I recognized it as a painting of the Prodigal Son, a young man kneeling in the embrace of a red-caped patriarch. As I drew closer to the supplicant, I noticed he had an admirer besides me: a tall, slender woman about my age with wispy bangs, stylish boots, and a brown wool coat. The previous day, a well-coiffed Intourist guide had explained to me that there were three kinds of women in Russia: women with fur hats, women with fur collars, and —she paused for effect—women with no fur at all. Here was one of the latter, and while I noted her furlessness, she greeted me in Russian. "npHBeT."

"Preevyet. Hello," I said.

She smiled. "My name is Ekaterina, I am from Alma Ata. Where are you from?" She seemed to be rummaging for more English words, but after "Do you speak Esperanto?" the pantry was bare.

Laughing, I asked, "Frangais?" but she wasn't joking.

"Ne, ne," she said deliberately, her gray eyes narrowing, "Es-per- AN-to." One of us, I was sure, was ridiculous, but who? She, speaking to me in a pretend language? I, ignorant of Russian,

Kazakh, and Esperanto, in my red Wellingtons, got up as Paddington Bear? Even as we shook hands and parted ways, the conversation was swiftly becoming an anecdote, a story to tell next week at the Swan over a pint of bitter.

Twenty-five years later, with prodigal sons of my own, I stood at what might have been, for all I knew, the grave of Esperanto itself, and thought of Ekaterina. She'd be in her late forties now, her forehead lined, her hair graying or, more likely, rinsed flame-red. Still furless, she'd be stuck in a concrete high-rise in Alma Ata (now Almaty), where years pass slowly, heaving their burdens of debt and illness and worry. I wondered how Esperanto had journeyed from Poland to Kazakhstan, how long it had endured, and who had erected this monument. Who laid out this mosaic, chip by tiny chip— men? women? both? Jews? Poles? Kazakhs? Where had they come from, and when? And why such devotion to a failed cause, to the quixotic dream of a universal language?

I didn't know it then, but I would spend most of a decade trying to find out.

v' v' v'

The man who called himself Doktoro Esperanto (Doctor Hopeful) was a modern Jew, a child of emancipation adrift between the Scylla of anti-Semitism and the Charybdis of assimilation. Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof was born in 1859 in multiethnic Bialystok under the Russian Empire, the son and grandson of Russian-speaking language teachers. For a time, as a medical student in Moscow in the 1870s, he had dreamed among Zionists, but dreams are fickle things. His did not lead him to found a Jewish settlement in the malarial swamps and rocky fields of Palestine. In fact, they led him to dream of a Judaism purged of chosenness and nationalism; a modern Judaism in which Jews would embrace—and, in turn, be embraced by—like-minded others bent on forging a new monotheistic ethical cult. He believed that a shared past was not necessary for those determined to remake the world, only a shared future—and the effort of his life was to forge a community that

would realize his vision.

Had Zamenhof been one of the great God-arguers, he'd have taken God back to the ruins of Babel for a good harangue. God had been rash (not to mention self-defeating) to ruin the human capacity to understand, and foolish to choose one nation on which to lavish his blessings and curses, his love and his jealousy. But Zamenhof was not an arguer. Benign and optimistic, he entreated his contemporaries, Jews and non-Jews alike, to become a people of the future. And to help them to cross the gulfs among ethnicities, religions, and cultures, he threw a plank across the abyss. As he wrote in The Essence and Future of an International Language (1903):

Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof, Doktoro Esperanto [Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek]

If two groups of people are separated by a stream and know that it would be very useful to communicate, and they see that planks for connecting the two banks lie right at hand, then one doesn't need to be a prophet to foresee

with certainty that sooner or later a plank will be thrown over the stream and communication will be arranged. It's true that some time is ordinarily spent in wavering and this wavering is ordinarily caused by the most senseless pretexts: wise people say that the goal of arranging communication is childish, since no one is busy putting planks across the stream...; experienced people say that their progenitors didn't put planks across the stream and therefore, it is utopian; learned people prove that communication can only be a natural matter and the human organism can't move itself over planks etc. Nonetheless, sooner or later, the plank is thrown across.

In time, he hoped—and, against strong evidence, believed—that this simple plank laid down by one man would become a bridge of words.

With the tools of modernity—reason, efficiency, pragmatism—he sanded down the plank till it was smooth; people would cross over without getting splinters from irregular verbs or knotty idioms. Then, unlike most language inventors, Zamenhof renounced the privileges of a creator, without reneging on a creator's duties to his progeny. He is the only language inventor on record ever to cede his language to its users, inviting them to take his rudimentary list of roots, combine them with a handful of affixes, and invent words for new things, new occasions. And where roots were not to hand, Esperantists were by fiat free to invent new ones. It didn't matter whether the plank was thrown across a stream or an ocean; if one were determined to cross, it would reach.

The "international language," as Zamenhof initially called it, was designed not to replace national languages but to be a second language for the world. While earlier lingua francas, such as Greek, Latin, and French, had issued from empires, Zamenhof invented a language that would commit its users ...

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