Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language

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al samideanoj pasintaj kaj nuntempaj,


to Esperantists past and present,


It is not down in any map; true places never are.


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 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:



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

Russian. “Привет.”

“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

[Österreichische 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 ...

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