Notes on the life of Lidia Zamenhof

John Dale

Dear xxxx,

      In response to your request for information about Lidia Zamenhof, I offer here the briefest of sketches.

      Lidia Zamenhof was the youngest daughter of Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, the originator of Esperanto. Her life and actions as a Baha'i of Jewish background and as a promoter and user of Esperanto and translator of many Baha'i writings into that language make her a significant figure in the history of the European and American Baha'i and Esperanto movements in the 1920s and 30s. Her life and tragic ending in the Warsaw Ghetto and the extermination camp of Treblinka have been rescued from obscurity in a very well researched book by Wendy Heller published by George Ronald (Lidia: The Life of Lidia Zamenhof, Daughter of Esperanto). Wendy's book remains the fullest account of Lidia to date.

      Lidia was born on January 29, 1904 in Warsaw, Poland and died in the Treblinka death camp sometime after the summer of 1942. She learned Esperanto at the age of nine. After receiving a law degree, she became very active in promoting Esperanto and her father's own universal outlook called "homaranismo," meaning literally in Esperanto "human-group-member-ism."

      In 1925, she attended the Universala Kongreso in Geneva, where, 19 years earlier, her father had spoken of the pogroms against the Jews in his own home town and had urged the Esperantists to show forth the light of mutual understanding and friendship. During this congress, she attended a Baha'i meeting and met Martha Root, who was already well known among the non-Baha'i Esperantists for her fluency in the language and her whole-hearted and sincere support of the language itself and its aims. For Martha, the Baha'i movement was the 'Esperanto of religions'.

      At this meeting, Dr. Adelbert Muhlschlegel gave a short talk in Esperanto in which he explained Baha'u'llah's teaching, cited Abdu'l-Baha's many praises of Esperanto and of Dr. Zamenhof, explained that Dr. Zamenhof had exemplified the spirit of Baha'u'llah and because of this was a true Baha'i, and that Baha'is all over the world honored Dr. Zamenhof "as an ideal model and loved him as 'majstro' ('master') and brother." FOOTNOTE: This was no exaggeration at the time, and the Baha'i attitude toward Esperanto has always been one of official support and encouragement, although, with the exception of the Persian Baha'i communities who responded to Abdu'l-Baha's direct request to them, the Baha'is have never seriously attempted to carry out Abdu'l-Baha's basic guidance regarding this language, namely, to "introduce it into the schools as an introduction to the oneness of humanity." (See, Jeanne Bolles, "The Baha'i Movement and Esperanto," Star of the West, Vol. 11, # 17, Jan. 19, 1921, pp. 287-291.) This was a practical piece of guidance which, if it had been carried out and generalized, could have made America's schools over the decades a far much better source of world citizenship and world vision than they have been.

      In any case, Lidia and Martha met again a year later, and Martha felt that Baha'u'llah and Abdu'l-Baha had guided her to Lidia. Lidia, who had been raised in a universalistic and largely secularized atmosphere, was at first sceptical. But Martha's prayers and patient personality eventually had their effect on Lidia's own, and after the two had lived together for a number of months (Martha to improve her Esperanto and Lidia to improve her English), Lidia began to see the Baha'i model of progressive revelation and God's own universality as the extension and fulfillment of her own beliefs and identity. She became "profoundly convinced" (as have many other Baha'is who have delved into Esperanto) that "Esperanto was created directly under the influence of Baha'u'llah, although the author of the language did not know it." (_Lidia_, p. 71.)      

      After becoming a Baha'i, Lidia of course encountered the disapproval of some members of her own family and also of some Esperantists who wanted the issue of inter-communication delinked from the issue of religious affiliation. (There were significant movements for Esperanto in socialist quarters, which tended toward anti-religious sentiments.) She also encountered the scepticism of some Baha'is about Esperanto. In later years she eventually met with Shoghi Effendi, who, although he sincerely supported Baha'i efforts to use and publish in the language, apparently never learned it (unlike Abdu'l-Baha, who had learned at least the basics of the language with the help of Dr. Esslemont).

      At various points in her Baha'i career she apparently weathered some spiritual crises, and if I read between the lines of Wendy's biography, probably Lidia suffered from depression -- a certainly understandable problem given her sensitivity, her basic shyness, her ideals, and the darkness of the world surrounding her. She translated many Baha'i writings into Esperanto (most of which unfortunately still remain unpublished).

      She came to the United States in late 1937 at the invitation of the US NSA and with the encouragement of Shoghi Effendi. Her stay here was for the most part successful for both the Baha'i and Esperanto movements, but in a year the question of immigration status arose, and the Immigration Service denied a request for an extension of stay because, in its opinion, she had "worked" in the US while on a non-working visitor's visa by having been "paid" for teaching Esperanto classes. Any competent immigration attorney could have gotten her out of this mess, and it was negligent and careless on the part of the NSA, as her sponsor, to have failed to structure her stay in the US in a way which would not have triggered these problems to begin with. (I speak here as an immigration attorney myself.) Efforts to reverse the decision of the Immigration Service produced only a small extension, and in December 1938, Lidia sailed back to Poland.

      In her last years, she travelled in Poland teaching Esperanto and the Faith and producing translations of the Writings. She was eventually arrested by the Nazis because of her Jewish background, was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto, where she cared for those around her and attempted to obtain medicine and food for them. She was finally killed at the Nazi extermination camp at Treblinka some time after the summer of 1942.

      I might add that Lidia's memory was honored in December 1995 at a special meeting at the US Jewish Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. which focused generally on the efforts of Esperantists to help rescue Jews during World War II from fascist and communist persecution.

      One further note is Lidia's inspiration to the life and work of Roan Orloff Stone, another Baha'i of East European Jewish background who learned Esperanto and carried on Lidia's pioneering work of translating Baha'i writings (including Nabil's Narrative) into Esperanto. Roan was known across the United States and internationally as a Baha'i Esperantist. She was instrumental in obtaining the approval of the House of Justice for the formation of the Baha'i Esperanto League in the early 1970s.

      I hope this terribly brief sketch of Lidia's life and efforts will begin to stimulate Irfanians into a greater appreciation of the role Esperanto played in the early Baha'i movement and among the early heroes and heroines of the Cause. The role of Esperanto could have been much greater and much more beneficial if the Baha'is had simply followed Abdu'l-Baha's advice and used Esperanto as a pedagogical tool in the schools rather than always intermixing it with the diplomatic question of an official international language, in which Esperanto always "loses" by comparison with English. Esperanto's vocabulary, despite its great increase since the time of Abdu'l-Baha, is still not large enough for it to serve as an official international language for specialists in many fields. As a first foreign language for children, however, Esperanto offers unparalleled benefits which Baha'i school teachers should finally begin to start exploiting.

      John Dale