BRIDGE OF WORDS: ESPERANTO AND THE DREAM OF A UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE
By Esther Schor
Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, $32, 364 pages illustrated
Princeton English professor Esther Schor is the author of a biography of Emma Lazarus, best known for the words that adorn the Statue of Liberty. Here Ms. Schor exercises her biographical skills once again on a far less-famous figure, Ludovik Lazarus Zamenhof (1859-1917), who set himself the utopian task of constructing a universal language:
“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.”
Born in the Polish city of Bialystok, then part of Czarist Russia, Zamenhof was surrounded by myriad languages, many of which he spoke, and so it is not surprising that the veritable Tower of Babel which surrounded him inspired this polymath (he was an ophthalmologist by profession), to create a rationally constructed language, accessible, with logical rules and diction:
“The ‘international language,’ as Zamenhof initially called it, was designed not to replace national languages but to be a second language for the world. While earlier lingua francas, such as Greek, Latin and French, had issued from empires, Zamenhof invented a language that would commit its users to transcend nationalism.”
Although Ms. Schor is aware that Zamenhof’s enterprise, which she rightly terms “quixotic,” is deeply rooted in his Jewish identity and experience, she is equally firm that universalism became the guiding principle of his quest. He flirted with, then rejected Zionism, thought about modernizing Yiddish, but these were only temporary swerves on a dedicated path.
A kind of mini-biography in a book which expands far beyond the confines of the genre, her portrait of Zamenhof is crystalline in defining this gifted man, who was no mere tilter at windmills. And her portrait of his daughter Lidia, who did so much to keep his flame burning brightly, is equally indelible. The story of her inability to obtain the necessary papers to remain in the United States, necessitating her return to Poland, and her eventual murder in the gas chambers immediately upon her arrival at Treblinka, is universally heartbreaking.
Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of “Bridge of Words” is its author’s passionate engagement with Esperanto. What started out as an examination of how it fared turns into an immersion into what is, astonishingly, even in the 21st century, an enduring alternate universe. She not only learned the language but clearly embraced it, peppering her text with Esperanto words and phrases, which allows readers to get some sense of its flavor, and providing a useful glossary. Her enthusiasm is infectious, but the downside of her wild ride across the globe — or rather its Esperantist corners — is a certain breathlessness of tone as she bombards us with aficionados, anecdotes and unexpected uses to which this constructed language has been put. While Esperanto may never have fulfilled Zamenhof’s hopes and dreams for it, its resilience is undeniable and definitely, if somewhat torrentially, demonstrated in these pages.
Esperanto’s best chance at grasping the brass ring seems to have been the ill-fated “League of Nations,” where ironically it foundered on the shoals of nationalism and class prejudice (“a language for the masses”), qualities Zamenhof would have abhorred. But as Ms. Schor points out, “proponents of Esperanto well placed within the league struggled on . The last significant act of the League regarding Esperanto was a Persian initiative: Esperanto, a language that tens of thousands of people spoke fluently, was upgraded from ‘code’ to ‘language’ in telegraphy.” And once again, decades later, the internet has invigorated it anew.
One of those well-placed proponents named by Ms. Schor is Lord Robert Cecil, whom she astonishingly identifies only as “the delegate from the dominion of South Africa [and] author of the failed 1922 resolution on education [in Esperanto].” Cecil did apparently briefly represent the Union of South Africa (with which he had no real connection apart from his closeness to its Prime Minister Jan Smuts), but to describe him as she has done is a travesty. A prime mover, along with Smuts, of the League — indeed a case can be made that he was the inventor of the idea before Woodrow Wilson — Cecil’s tireless advocacy and work for it won him the Nobel Peace Prize among many other honors. Ms. Schor’s grossly inadequate characterization of him is yet another depressing example of the scholarly tunnel vision so prevalent in the groves of academe today.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.