ADDRESS BY TIMOTHY JAMES RYAN
President, Esperanto Society of Washington
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
December 5, 1995
Esperanto -- what is behind this language and movement with the exotic name? Well, you could say it goes back to the Tower of Babel. Behind Esperanto are millennia of racial and cultural divisions in mankind, but it took a Jewish boy named Ludovic Lazar Zamenhof to bring the dream to fruition. Growing up in the multi-cultural and multi-lingual city of Bialystok, now in Poland, then in the Czarist Russian empire, he witnessed the close connections between communication, understanding and tolerance.
He saw firsthand how linguistic differences -- in the case of his hometown, German, Polish, Russian and Yiddish -- exacerbated cultural and racial ones. From his adolescence he resolved to blend the best grammatical, phonetic, and vocabulary elements of many languages to create a modern, streamlined, politically neutral language which all could easily learn and use a "bridge language" for all mankind.
After laboring over his language for years, Zamenhof published the first textbook in 1887, using the pen name of Dr. Esperanto -- meaning hopeful one. The growth curve of Esperanto was astounding, when one remembers it began as an idea in the head of one schoolboy in Bialystok, not exactly a world cultural or communication center, then or now. Within the next few years, Esperanto had thousands of followers and speakers in several countries.
By 1905, the movement was big enough for its first annual world congress, and these conclaves have continued annually ever since. In 1910 it was held here in Washington, and the local press, including the Post and the Star, was so fascinated that the doings of the Esperantists were front-page news every day for the duration of the congress.
But it is the relationship between Esperanto and the Nazi holocaust which principally concerns us here this afternoon. The antagonism between Esperanto and the Nazis was natural from the very beginning, since Esperanto is about unfettered communication, tolerance, and outreach between the peoples of the world, across barriers of language, race, culture, politics, wars, and what Jefferson called "all forms of tyranny over the mind of man." Of course the Nazis, the arch-villains of world history, stood for complete opposition to all those ideals.
Moreover, the language and movement were an outgrowth of the rich Eastern European Jewish culture the Nazis detested. Zamenhof's ideals and motivations were deeply rooted in Judaism and its moral champions such as Rabbi Hillel and Moses Mendelssohn.
Hitler ranted against Esperanto in Mein Kampf as part of the worldwide Jewish conspiracy -- the Jews, he frothed, after taking over the world, would force the Gentiles to speak Esperanto among themselves, thus making them easier for the Jews to control.
Reinhard Heydrich, the infamous Nazi police chieftain who orchestrated the Wannsee conference where the "final solution" of genocide was decided upon, instigated an escalating campaign against Esperanto beginning as early as 1935. Recorded correspondence shows that Heydrich influenced fellow Nazi leaders Joseph Goebbels, Rudolf Hess and Martin Bormann to take a harder stance against the International Language.
Soon the Gestapo began adding the charge of "secret language of Communists" to its litany of slanders against Esperanto. By 1939 the language was banned, and the next year the office of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler issued a report stating that "the artificial language Esperanto is part of Esperantism, a tool of the Jews." From then on, Esperantists were especially earmarked for oppression and, in many cases, rapid liquidation.
All three of Zamenhof's children were murdered by the Nazis. His son Adam was executed by special orders from Berlin (this was confirmed after the war by the Nazi police chief of Warsaw), and daughters Lidia and Zofia perished at Treblinka.
The best-known of these three children was Lidia Zamenhof, who taught and propagated Esperanto tirelessly in many nations after her father's death in 1917. In the late 1930s she was pursuing this calling in the United States but was deported back to Poland in 1938 for having earned a pittance by her teaching, a minor violation of U.S. immigration regulations, despite ample evidence and the warnings of her American Esperantist colleagues that she would be in danger of political and racial persecution if she returned home -- a prophecy that would be tragically fulfilled.
Esperanto also often served as an instrument of deliverance from Third Reich tyranny. Jews fleeing the Nazis used their Esperanto networks to assist each other, and Gentile anti-Nazi Germans made use of Esperanto in their underground movement against the totalitarian regime.
Valdemar Langlet, one of the earliest Esperantists in Sweden, worked with the Swedish Red Cross in Budapest during the war, and saved thousands through his clever and courageous manipulation of protective documents, making great use of his Esperanto contacts. His colleague in this work was Raoul Wallenberg, whose name today graces the street where this museum stands. Today Langlet is revered as the "Esperantist Schindler."
Hitler wasn't the only dictator to suppress Esperanto. Joseph Stalin and his henchmen also singled out Esperantists for brutalization, seeing the language as an agent of hated "cosmopolitanism." Countless Esperantists, including many pioneers and major figures of the Soviet Esperanto movement, were purged and killed in gulags. Solzhenitsyn discusses the persecution of Esperantists in The Gulag Archipelago.
Since the war, Esperanto has been the medium of many writers on the Nazi terror, choosing this cosmopolitan, international idiom as the perfect vehicle to express the sufferings of mankind. Julius Balbin, who now lives in New York, has written extensively on the holocaust, including many works originally in Esperanto. This book, The Bitch of Buchenwald, is one example.
Esperanto has survived the holocaust and other calamities of this century, continuing to grow in speakers, now numbering in the millions. Many people are surprised to learn this since the novelty factor of the language has long since worn off, and Esperanto gets far less attention now than it did when only a few thousand spoke it early in this century.
One may ask: Why hasn't Esperanto yet achieved its ultimate lofty goal of becoming universally recognized everwhere and taught in every school in the world as mankind's second language?
Perhaps a better question would be: Given that Esperanto lacks the resources of a world power behind it, given that Esperanto is up against the cultural and economic elites of the world -- then why has Esperanto survived and continued to grow?
The answer must be that Esperanto fulfills a real longing in the hearts and minds of millions of people for a special kind of outreach that transcends borders of all kinds. After all, surviving evil and indifference and reaching out beyond barbed wire -- both physical and otherwise -- is what this museum is all about.