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Zamenhof: You ask me to write in some detail about my life

Zamenhof wrote countless letters, over a thousand have been found until now. Among them, three very important letters, of which he was convinced (he actually asked for it) that they will be kept for posterity. The first was a letter written in Esperanto to Alfred Michaux on February 21, 1905. Here it is, translated by Prof. Walter Żelazny

Dear Sir,

you ask me to write extensively about my life. As far as I can, I will gladly do so, but, unfortunately, I won’t be able to do all that much. Here are the reasons: maybe for future generations my biography will not be useless, because, as a matter of fact, my whole life, from my earliest childhood until now, presents a constant and unbroken series of many struggles: a) the internal one, played out inside me, in which different views and goals constantly wrestled with each other, all equally important, and whose harmonization often required exceptional efforts which I found always very tiring; b) the external ones, where often I had to fight against all sorts of hardships, because my views were never in fashion, and because of that I was often the subject of attacks and mockery. Moreover, for many years I had big and very exhausting troubles with earning my living and these efforts were a millstone around my neck. In recent years, I have come to the situation when the bread is not lacking, but, unfortunately, this long fight has so exhausted me that not being yet 46, I feel like a sixty-year-old. About my inner struggle I would like to and I could tell a lot. But if – as I have already said – my story would perhaps make some sense for future generations, it will be totally useless for the present one. Because straight away, to start with, I would have to say that I am a Jew, and that all my ideas, their births, their maturation and my stubbornness, in other words, the whole history of my inner and outer struggles has been inseparable linked to my Hebraism. I have never hid it, and all Esperantists know this; I pride myself on these ancient and so much suffering and struggling people whose whole historical mission is, in my opinion, to unite nations in the search of "one God", that is in search of common ideas for all mankind; but in the present times of national chauvinisms and growing anti-Semitism, making out of my Hebraism the topic of public debate would be disadvantageous and at a loss to our cause, yet to talk in detail about my life and my ideas without constantly referring to my Hebraism would be impossible. If I was not a ghetto Jew, the idea of unifying all humanity would not have occurred to me or it would have never so stubbornly accompanied me throughout my whole life. Nobody can feel the misery of human divisions as much as a Jew from a ghetto. No one can feel as strongly about the need for a non-national but a neutral human language as a Jew who has to pray to God in a long-dead tongue, who receives education and studies in the language of the nation that drives him out, who has scattered all over the world suffering kinsmen with whom he cannot communicate. I have neither the time nor the patience to explain to you the situation of Russian Jews and the impact of this situation on my struggles and life goals. I will simply say that from my early youth, my Hebraism has been the main reason for giving my strength to a single purpose and a dream – the dream of unification of humanity.


The house in which Ludwik Zamenhof was born, Zielona Street in Białystok, Historical Museum in Białystok   

This idea is the essence of my life, and the issue of Esperanto is only a part of it – I do not stop thinking and dreaming about the rest; sooner or later (maybe in a short time), when Esperanto will no longer need me, I will come up with certain plan that I have been preparing for a long time, and about which I may write to you some other time. This plan (I call it Hilelism) is designed to create a moral bridge that will unite all peoples and religions without the need to create new dogma and without the need to reject existing beliefs. My intention is to create such religious bonds that would suppress all religious passions in a peaceful manner, in the same way that the authorities gather around themselves all separate homesteads and families without forcing them to give up their own traditions and customs.

If my Hebraism gave birth to, strengthened and confirmed me in the ideas aiming at unification of humanity, then the same Hebraism also created for me various difficulties, reinforced various internal anxieties which I found often tormenting and exhausting (for example, over the last five years during which I corrected and changed Hilelism plans, which have not been yet finalized).

If I were not a Jew, then I could give myself absolutely and entirely to my dreams, but I belong to a nation that has suffered a lot and partly continues to suffer (especially in Russia, where the constant moaning of my cruelly oppressed and humiliated nation disturbs me). That is why I’ve been often bothered by the thought that I did not have the moral right to work for the neutral ideals of the whole of humanity when my people suffer and have so few defenders. In addition, I have always told myself: “When a Jew works for the unification of mankind, he will be ridiculed and attacked from everywhere, and they will say that he is doing it only from selfishness, so as to take away from the happier nations those privileges they have, unlike the unhappy and persecuted Jews. Therefore, change their situation – I told myself – give them some piece of land, language and splendour, only then you will have the right to talk about unification of nations, just as of social reforms can speak only the rich who gives, not the poor who demands.” Whenever these thoughts came to me, I was awakened by the ambition of helping my persecuted brothers (for love of the idea itself), and so I was becoming a patriot. For a long period of my youth, I was an engaged Zionist (then, Zionism was not yet in fashion and I was one of its pioneers, and when I talked about reconstruction of the Palestinian homeland, my countrymen mocked me). I devoted myself to this idea, I organized some of the first Zionist groups. After 3-4 years of vigorous work on Zionism, I came to the view that this idea was leading nowhere, and so I parted with it, though in my heart it always remained dear to me as an unattainable but enchanting dream; and when the great Zionist movement of Herzl was born in 1897, I did not want to join it. But even at the time when I was a committed Zionist, I did not forget to work for the main idea (that is the unification of humanity). I hoped that once upon a time, when my people would attain their ancient homeland and along with it happiness, it would fulfil its historic mission that Moses and Christ had dreamed of, and willy-nilly will create an ideological, neutrally human nation and a country with a neutrally human, philosophically pure religion. And the words of the Bible will come to pass that all the nations will go to Jerusalem to worship the one "God," and Jerusalem will become the centre that will fraternize all humanity...

Because a large part of our people (especially in Russia) does not speak local languages but uses a separate Jewish-German jargon (called Yiddish), which until now does not have its own grammar, many years ago I dedicated to Yiddish about two years of study, I analysed its rules and worked out its grammar, which I never published. Later, I abandoned this work, because I came to the conclusion that the awakening of national patriotism in the Jews may be useless to them as well as to the idea of human union.


Alfred Michaux and Ludwik Zamenhof, 1905, public domain   

There was a time when I thought that all the inhabitants of a given country should have one religion and speak one language. I even wanted to start propagating this thought, but soon I rejected it, considering it to be useless.

I cannot tell in detail about my ideas and purposes, primarily because it would take too much time, and, moreover, it would also be a useless material for your public appearances. I told you very personally so that you would have an approximate idea of my life, but this should not be debated publically. I just wanted to say that since my early childhood, the most important subject was "human", but due to the unhappy condition of my people, often a "patriot" aroused in me and in my heart fought against the "human".

In the last 10 years, I have progressively managed to reconcile the "human" and the "patriot" in my heart, which resulted in Hilelism, as I mentioned earlier, and I will present it in the form of a publication in a year or two. I would like to recall that already four years ago (under the pseudonym "Homo sum"), I published a work about Hilelism, dedicated in particular to the Russian Jews, but almost nobody heard about this book, because I did not send it to the press; it circulated more like a "baliom d'essai" in the milieu of Jewish intellectuals. The opinions that came to me about it will serve me to definitively clarify my thoughts, which after a few years I would like to show to the intelligentsia of all nations and religions.

These few examples can show you that the story of my ideas cannot serve you for delivering public presentations. That is why I will fall silent on this subject and will still give you some dry dates from my bibliography (I give them not to be publicised but privately, and please choose only what you may find useful).


Białystok, Central Judaica Database   

I was born in Bialystok on December 15, 1859. My father (who is still alive) and grandfather were language teachers. Language was always the dearest subject of my interests. I most loved the language in which I was educated, namely Russian. I learned it with the greatest pleasure. I used to dream of becoming a poet in Russian (I wrote little rhymes in Russian as a child, and at the age of 10 I wrote in it a five-act tragedy). I was happy to learn yet other languages, but I was more interested in them theoretically than practically, and as I had no opportunity to use them, I learned them by sight but I never spoke them. That is why I can say that I speak very well in Russian, Polish and German. I easily read French, but unfortunately I do not speak it often and correctly. Moreover, in various periods of my life I also learned eight other languages that I know only superficially and theoretically.

During childhood, I loved Russian language and Russian land, but soon I found out that my love is repaid by hatred, that the rulers of this land call themselves the people who see me as a stranger deprived of his rights (in spite of the fact that I, my grandparents and my great-grandparents were born and worked in this country). They all hate, insults and oppress my brothers.

All the other national groups that inhabited my town were hostile towards each other and persecuted each other... I suffered a lot for this reason, and I began to dream of such a time when the hatred between nations would disappear, when there would appear a language and the country which would rightfully belong to all its inhabitants, in which people would understand that they should respect each other.


Ludwik Zamenhof, ca. 1879, UEA Archives   

In 1869, I started studying at a Bialystok junior high school, but after two months I had to leave it because of a serious illness (I was often ill in my childhood). I returned to it in 1870 and was flying high (let me say that for nine years of schooling in junior high school, both in Bialystok and Warsaw, I was always the best in the class); the teachers considered me a very gifted student, and my colleagues prophesied (without any envy, but sincerely, because among my schoolmates I had no enemies) that I would be very successful in my life. But it never came true, and I had to struggle a long time to provide my family with the means to live. In 1873, my parents moved to Warsaw, where my father obtained the position of German teacher in a real junior high school. I studied at home for five months, learning Greek and Latin, then I went to another philological junior school in Warsaw, from which I graduated in 1879. Then, I went to Moscow and started medical studies at the university there. My Moscow colleagues represented a lot of races, and that even further inclined me to the idea of linking mankind. Soon my family fell into financial trouble, they could not support me in Moscow, and so, in 1881, I returned to Warsaw, where I continued my studies at the local university. I graduated at the beginning of 1885. I moved to the Lithuanian village Veisiejai [little town located in Lithuanian part of Suwalki region – ed. note], where I started my medical practice. During my four-month practice, I noticed that I was not to be an internist because of my hypersensitivity, especially in the case of the suffering of dying people. I went back to Warsaw and decided to specialize in eye diseases. For six months, I worked as an ophthalmologist in one of the Warsaw hospitals, later for some period in Vienna, and at the end of 1886 I returned to Warsaw.

It was at that time that I met my future wife, Klara Silbernik from Kaunas (she was visiting her sister living in Warsaw). On August 9, 1887, I married her. I had told my fiancée about my ideas and plans for the future related to them. I asked whether she would like to share with me her fate. Not only did she agree, but she gave me the full amount of money she possessed, and this allowed me, after long and vain inquiries, to publish on my own, in July 1887, my first four brochures, manuals for Esperanto, in Russian, Polish, German and French. Soon after, I published "Dua Libro", "Aldono", "Nega Blovado" and "Gefratoj" (by Grabowski), translation of "Dua Libro" and "Aldono", German dictionary, complete Russian dictionary, textbooks for Englishmen and Swedes, as well as "Princino Mary", "Adresaron", and covered the costs of publishing the work of Einstein and H. Philips. I spent quite a lot on advertisements in the press and on the distribution of a large number of books, etc.

Soon afterwards, Esperanto consumed most of my wife's money, and the rest went for current expenses, because the income from my medical practice was very low. At the end of 1889, we were left without a kopeck!

My life was sad at the time. I had to leave Warsaw and look for bread somewhere else. My wife went with the child to her father, and I, in November 1899, to the city of Kherson (in the south of Russia), where there was only one ophthalmologist and where I hoped to find bread for my family. My hopes had all failed, my income there not only did not allow me to maintain my family, but was even not enough for me, despite my humble and very frugal life! Sometimes I had simply nothing to eat, often staying without a dinner. Neither my relatives nor my wife knew about it, because I did not want to grieve her, and in my letters I always comforted her that I'm fine, that I have not the worst prospects, and that I will soon bring her over. In the end, I could not stand it anymore and I wrote the whole truth. I was still too proud to accept financial help from someone. But my wife's grief and her pleas forced me to accept the financial subsidy of my father-in-law, who, both then and later, was always willing to help me and he spent much money to support me. I returned to Warsaw, hoping that this time I will succeed.


Families Zamenhof and Michaux at the first Esperanto Congress, Boulogne 1905, UEA Archives    

Also this time hope has failed me. My income was not growing, and debts were increasing. Not having the possibility to wait for better times, in October 1893 I moved with my family to Grodno. My income was there much higher than in Warsaw, and life was cheaper. Although in Grodno there was not enough for everything and now and then I had to ask for help my father-in-law, I managed to live there quietly for four years. My children grew up and demanded more expensive education, but Grodno was so poor that an ophthalmologist could never increase his income in that place. Therefore, at the stubborn wish of my father-in-law, at the end of 1897 I decided to return to Warsaw once more and take up the challenge for the last time.

My soul was a in a terrible state. I felt that I was facing the last attempt, and if I don’t cope this time, I will be lost. During the first year, I thought I would go mad with hopelessness. But finally, thanks to the last effort of my energy, the fate began to change. Soon afterwards, my ophthalmic practice began to bring first joy, and in 1901 it was good enough so that my income fully covered the expenses. I saved myself. After many years of struggles, sacrifices and sufferings, I finally came to a calmer life and I have enough bread for the family (although, of course, I still have to live modestly and count each kopeck). I live in one of the poorest streets of Warsaw, my patients belong to the poor and pay little. I have to take 30-40 per day to earn as much as others for 5-10 patients. But I am very content because I have enough for bread and no longer need anybody’s help. I have three children: a son and two daughters. I am very tired and also exhausted by this, such a very long letter.

Farewell! PS. I said above that the extensive public discussion on my nationality at the present time I find to be useless, as I must now avoid anything that would unnecessarily give a pretext for useless disputes. However, in no way do I intend to hide my nationality. So, if you will talk about it, please say that I consider myself a Jew from Russia.


Polish translation of the text:

Żelazny W., Ludwik Zamenhof. Życie i dzieło. Recepcja i reminiscencje. Wybór tekstów, Kraków 2011, pp. 15–19.

Original in Esperanto:

Mi estas homo. Originalaj verkoj de d-ro L. L. Zamenhof, ed. A. Korĵenkov, Kaliningrad 2006, pp. 99–106.