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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
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
Among the largest monuments in the cemetery—the baroque
monument to the actor Ester Rachel Kamińska; the porphyry stone
of writer I. L. Peretz; the ponderous granite tomb of Adam
Czerniaków, 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:
DOKTORO LAZARO LVDOVIKO ZAMENHOF KREINTO DE
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 Рембрандт. 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
“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, “Français?” 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.
* * *
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 Białystok 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
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 ...