Memorial ceremony at the tomb of Ludwik Zamenhof, in the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw, ca. 1917. The inscription on the tombstone is in Esperanto. (YIVO)

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Zamenhof, Ludwik

(1859–1917), ophthalmologist, linguist, and inventor of Esperanto. Ludwik Zamenhof was born in the Polish border city of Białystok. Both his father, Markus, and his grandfather worked as foreign-language instructors. Zamenhof completed heder at 13 and from 1869 on attended a public secondary school. In 1873, his parents moved to Warsaw, where he began studying at a private secondary school that specialized in languages. From his youth Zamenhof occupied himself with poetry and drama; he wrote, among other pieces, a five-act tragedy based on the myth of the Tower of Babel.

Zamenhof was fascinated by the idea of a world without linguistic or religious barriers, and thus, he believed, without war. He believed this world could come into being with the help of an international language, one that was easy to learn and accessible to all. He began to develop such a language, producing a first version in 1873 while still in secondary school. In 1879, he went to Moscow to study medicine. His time there coincided with the rise of antisemitism in Russia, which propelled him toward the Zionist camp. Upon returning to Warsaw to continue his medical studies, however, he severed his ties to the movement. In 1885 he began his residency, finally deciding to specialize in ophthalmology.

In 1887 Zamenhof married Klara Silbernik, and that same year compiled the definitive version of his “artificial” language. With financial help from his father-in-law, he presented his project to the public in the book Lingvo internacia (International Language), under the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto (Dr. One Who Hopes). Indeed, he hoped the spread of this language would eventually lead to peace among all nations.

Zamenhof incurred major expenses in popularizing Esperanto, and found himself in financial straits. In order to reduce his financial burden, he moved to Grodno. There he again began to lean toward Zionism, a movement that held a naively mystical aspect for him. He also began working on the foundations for a new religion, Hillelism, named after the rabbi Hillel, known for his gentleness and tolerance. As with Esperanto, Zamenhof intended his religion to link people internationally. He later modified Hillelism, renaming it Homaranism (the meaning of which in Esperanto referred to humanity more generally), so that it might serve as the basis for a new, universal, linguistically neutral human culture. However, the new religion found few adherents.

In 1888, Zamenhof published two new books, Dua libro de lingvo internacia (The Second Book of the International Language) and Aldono al la Dua libro (Supplement to the Second Book). The following year he produced Russian–Esperanto and German–Esperanto dictionaries. Returning to Warsaw in 1898, he opened a private medical practice. From 1889, he edited the monthly La Esperantisto, which was published in Nuremberg; he also founded the Universala Esperanto-Asocio (World Society of Esperantists). In the programmatic declaration of its first congress, held in 1905 in the French city of Boulogne-sur-Mer, Zamenhof abjured all the benefits of authorship of the new language, turning it over to the entire world. He translated many works into Esperanto, including the Torah, which he finished shortly before his death.

The outbreak of World War I crushed Zamenhof’s hopes of uniting the peoples of the world. This disappointment, along with the stress of his incessant work, took its toll on his health.

Zamenhof’s work was continued by his daughter Lidia (1904–1942), who traveled widely to lecture on and teach Esperanto. This brought her into contact with members of the Baha’i religion, which shared the universalist message of the Esperantist movement, and she became an adherent of that faith. Having returned to Poland in the late 1930s, she was arrested by the Germans and confined to the Warsaw ghetto; in 1942 she was transported to Treblinka, where she was murdered.

Suggested Reading

Norman Berdichevsky, “Zamenhof and Esperanto,” Ariel 64 (1986): 58–71; Wendy Heller, Lidia: The Life of Lidia Zamenhof (Oxford, 1985); Tomasz Wiśniewski, Ludwik Zamenhof (Białystok, Pol., 1987).



Translated from Polish by Anna Grojec