Print | A A A | Report a bug | 43 213 680 chars | 84164 photos | 731 video | 116 audio | 1920 towns





Fascinating Jewish intellectual

On the centenary of the death of Ludwik Zamenhof, Virtual Shtetl prepared for you a number of texts written by Prof. Walter Żelazny, drawing the silhouette of this world-renowned figure.

Ludwik Zamenhof (1859–1917) is basically known only as the creator of Esperanto; as such he was made famous by Esperantists. He is unknown as an intellectual, yet some of his works rediscovered after many years astonish with their visionary quality. It should be remembered that on September 25, 1939, a huge part of his work was burnt in the family archives in Warsaw, as a result of an explosion of a German bomb. He created Esperanto language at the age of 28; this language never needed any corrections. He was developing his social and religious ideas for half a century and all of them he repeatedly corrected without ending his thoughts. It is, therefore, advisable to look at Zamenhof as a fascinating intellectual.


Ludwig Zamenhof, photo: NAC   

Zamenhof rejected all of the Jewish programs of his time and created his own Hilelism (so named in tribute to Hillel), then Humanitarianism (in the original Esperanto Homaranismo), which:

by not denying any person their homeland, their language and their belief, he will let them overcome all contradictions of their national and religious background and communicate with all people of any language and religion on a neutral human foundation, according to the principle of mutuality.

In each of the then-proposed solutions to the Jewish question, Zamenhof sees more faults than merits. The territorialists, in his view, will not gather a few million Jews into one place to create their own country, he finds it impossible. He rejects Yiddishism. "It’s true that we, Eastern European Jews, have a common language (...) it is a jargon. (...) But such a nation, polishing the Germanic dialect in the Russian-Polish zone between the Baltic and the Black Sea, will never be recognized by any Hebrew faction (...)." At the same time, Zamenhof will write the first ever Yiddish grammar. Dovid Katz (one of the most eminent Yiddish experts), bedazzled decades later by the rediscovered Yiddish grammar, wrote: "Even today, if it were to be published, it would be a historical-scientific sensation."

Zamenhof most strongly opposed to the assimilation programs, and, therefore, also to some extent – to Haskalah. He wrote: "I do not believe that the Jewish masses themselves would surrender to any religious or social reform. It is the responsibility of the intelligentsia to enlighten the masses."


L. Zamenhof, A. Zakrzewski, A. B. Brzostowski, F. Zamenhof, K. Bein, A. Grabowski, L. Belmont, Robin, J. Günther, 1908, photo by Ignacy Matuszewski, National Library of Poland   

He finally rejects Zionism as well: "But even if to believe in miracles and assume that all the Jews will find themselves in Palestine, then, analogically to the other three expulsions, and even more so now, when Palestine is spread out on the «volcano», we will see after several dozen or maybe a hundred years... a new, fourth exile!".

Zamenhof had to ask himself the question as to how Judaism itself solves the national issues and where the place of all the other non-chosen nations is. Finally, he came to the conclusion that being chosen is not an elevation, but an additional duty to bear witness that the Lord commanded Jews towards non-Jews.

The national concepts should be "reformed", because the nation is an ideological construct, and the real life of an individual does not take place in the nation but among its neighbours, in a town, in a village, in a region. How can an individual be guilty for being born here and not there, that he/she was brought up in that rather than this religion, culture, that he/she was taught this rather than that language?

This was exactly the dilemma that was supposed to be resolved by Esperanto. The new, equitable social and national order is to be guaranteed by the ius sermonis principle, that is the use of a neutral language that nullifies ethnic, national, linguistic and even cultural diversity of the multinational and multi-ethnic Europe. Before World War I, Esperanto was gaining success which is nowadays unimaginable, but its development was halted by France in the League of Nations in 1922, and later – by all the totalitarianisms. Any other language in similar circumstances, initially subjected to psychic oppression, additionally without state patronage, legal protection, subsidies – dies. Esperanto lasts!

Ludwik Zamenhof speaking at the World Esperanto Congress in Barcelona (Spain) in 1909.

During the period of formal non-existence of the Polish state, Esperanto was a powerful instrument for reminding Europeans of the fate of Poland. Poland has therefore a certain debt of gratitude to Zamenhof and Esperanto, which, let's be honest, remains unpaid.

It was not in any national interest to promote the "neutral" international Esperanto-like language, and the languages that had gained that rank in history achieved it largely as a result of economic forces supported by colonial conquests.

The Second World War caused unimaginable genocide, destruction and dehumanization. It buried the noblest ideas. No one predicted its effects. Zamenhof was an advocate of pacifism as a political measure. Shortly before he died, he had written: "So if in my house someone else uses my work for the sake of another ethnic group (...) I have to console myself with the hope that this abnormal situation will sooner or later disappear and my children will have the full motivation to work, which fate denied me." As it turned out, pacifism did not spare his children, nor his nation or other nations whose people died in various proportions in the Holocaust.

It is impossible to present here the whole of Zamenhof's intellectual output, which still needs to be properly explored. In conclusion, I will quote Agnieszka Jagodzińska: "(...) the time of Zamenhof's texts is still the time «in front» of us (...)."

Walter Żelazny


  • Baudouin de Courtenay J. M., On the artificial international language in general, and Esperanto in particular, “Ilustrowany Kurier Codzienny” 1912, no. 187.
  • Boulton M., Zamenhof, Creator of Esperanto, London 1980.
  • Caubel A., La raison contre Babel, “Editions de l'Union rationaliste” 1987, no. 197.
  • Cherpillod A., Zamenhof et le judaïsme, Blanchetière 1997.
  • Clément M., L'homaranisme. De la sagesse d’Hillel aux lumières juives (IVe édition, revue et corrigée), Michel Clément Ph.D. [online] [access: 12.04.2017].
  • Janton P., L'espéranto, Paris 1989.
  • Jurkowski M., From the Tower of Babel to the language of Aliens (on artificial, universal and international languages), Białystok 1986.
  • Korĵenkov A., Homarano. La vivo, verkoj kaj ideoj de d-ro L. L. Zamenhof, Kaliningrado – Kaunas 2009.
  • Künzli A., L. L. Zamenhof (1859–1917). Esperanto, Hillelismus (Homaranismus) und die jüdische Frage” in Ost– und Westeuropa, Wiesbaden 2010.
  • Ludwik Zamenhof in the face of “Jewish question”, ed. A. Jagodzińska, Kraków – Budapest 2002.
  • Mi estas homo. Originalaj verkoj de d-ro L. L. Zamenhof, ed. A. Korĵenkov, Kaliningrad 2006.
  • Zamenhof L., Hillielizm. Projekt rieszenija jewriejskawo woprosa, Helsinki 1972.
  • Żelazny W., Les idées sociales et religieuses suscitées par le phénomène des langues dites artificielles (aspect interlinguistique et social), ”Esperantologio / Esperanto Studies” 2001, no. 2.
  • Żelazny W., Ludwik Zamenhof. Life and work. Reception and Reminiscences. Selection of texts, Kraków 2011.