Friday, October 07, 2011

Doctor Esperanto - Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof

Already in the first edition of his book with instructions for learning his new language, Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof renounced himself forever of all personal rights, saying that international language is a property of society.

It was a gloomy autumn day in 1888 when an unknown man knocked on a door of a humble apartment in Warsaw where certain ophthalmologist lived. The ophthalmologist immediately opened the door. He thought that he had just another patient in front of him. But then, the unknown man said to him:

-    Cu vi estas doktoro Esperanto? (Are you doctor Esperanto?)

The ophthalmologist was speechless for a few moments. He just looked at his visitor. Then excitement sparkled from his face and he approached his visitor and squeezed his hand.

-     Jes, mi estas. Bonvolu!  (Yes, I am. Please!)

Those were the first two men who exchanged a few sentences with each other on a new international language – Doctor Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof and Antoni Grabowski.

The creator of the language of hope

In the Polish city of Bialystok, on December 15, 1859, it was a joyous day in the home of Mark Zamenhof. Surrounded by friends, the happy father celebrated the birth of his firstborn.  On that day, Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, saw the world for the first time.

The little boy grew up surrounded with parental love and care. From his father, an experienced educator and teacher, he inherited affection for languages that he easily learned, and from his mother he inherited sensibility and philanthropy. And his four brothers and three sisters, which were born later, were always unselfishly protected and loved by their oldest brother.

He had a gift for languages

The joy and beauty of his early school days were blurred. While attending elementary school in Bialystok, Zamenhof had to socialize and play only with Jewish children, no matter if he wanted that or not. The Polish and Russian children had their own groups, and didn’t socialize and play with anyone besides their own.

Children’s lack of understanding of other languages was a serious obstacle in their bonding. 

When he went to high school in 1869, Zamenhof already knew Polish, Russian and German language. He continued his education in Warsaw, in the classical gymnasium, where, with all his youthful vigor, he started learning Greek and Latin. Many years later, when he was creating Esperanto, Zamenhof used his knowledge of eight languages.

Even then, at a school desk, an idea kept developing in Zamenhof’s head - one language for all people, for all nations.  With much patience and will, he studied language textbooks and lexicons, and his working desk was full of books and dictionaries. Using the roots of Roman, Germanic and Slavic languages, Zamenhof was creating a new international language.

After finishing high school in 1879, Ludwig left his father’s home and went to Moscow. Before leaving, he promised his father that, at least temporarily, while studying at the university, he will put aside his work on the new language. He reluctantly parted from his notes, poems and translations.

In Moscow, Zamenhof conscientiously studied medicine. While working with his scalpel in the dissection hall, he thought about the internal mechanism of the human body. “The human beings are equal, they are creatures belonging to the same mankind. They all have a heart, a brain, generating organs, an ideal and needs, only the language and the nationality differentiate them."


After two years spent in Moscow, young Zamenhof returned to Warsaw. It is not difficult to imagine the despair of young medic when he heard that his father burned all of his workbooks and notes. But, already in August of 1881, Zamenhof had a completely new textbook and even richer dictionary of words. Locked in his room, he read aloud pages full of text he written with his new language.

The first book

After he successfully graduated medicine in Warsaw, in 1885 Zamenhof went to Vienna to acquire specialization. He returned to Warsaw as an ophthalmologist and, in 1887, he married Klara Silbernik who was for many years his faithful companion and collaborator.

Thrilled with the work of his son in law, Zamenhof’s father in law paid the printing of his first book - a new language textbook.  On June 2, 1887, it was printed in Russian language, but soon followed editions in Polish, French, German and English language. The book contained poetry and prose, 16 rules of grammar and 900 roots of vocabulary. 

Already in the first edition of his book, he renounced himself and his descendants of all personal rights, stating that "an international language, like every national one, is the property of society. In the end, he signed himself with "Doktoro Esperanto" which, literally translated, means: Doctor Hopeful.

Zamenhof sent out all over the world a large number of copies of his book – to writers, educators and others. And that’s how the history of Esperanto began.

After a long and painful anticipation, responses from all around the world began to arrive. Questions, advices, opinions ...some were even written in Esperanto. And Grabowski was already translating the works of Goethe and Pushkin. In one Russian magazine, Tolstoy wrote:I found the volap√ľk very complicated and, on the contrary, very simple Esperanto. It is so easy that having received, six years ago, a grammar, a dictionary and articles of this idiom, I could arrive, at the end of two early hours, if not to write it, at least with usually reading the language. … the sacrifices which any man of our European world will make, by devoting some time to his study are so small, and the results which can result from this so immense, that one cannot refuse to carry out this test.

Zamenhof personally responded to all letters and in that way he linked Esperantists from many different countries. The movement spread rapidly, despite the resistance of several well-known linguistic experts. And after nearly 400 failed attempts to create a common, international language, Esperanto is the only one that managed it. 

Guest at the first World Congress of Esperanto

In 1905, in company of his wife, Zamenhof visited France and the first World Congress of Esperanto. The Mayor of Paris paid him tribute and the French Minister of Public Instruction awarded him with National Order of the Legion of Honor. At the top of the Eiffel Tower, the creator of Esperanto had lunch with the most famous scientists of France.

A city of Boulogne-sur-Mer offered hospitality to all followers of previously unknown Warsaw doctor. And at every step of this little city a new language was heard. 800 Esperantist from 30 different countries eagerly expected the official opening of the congress. Noticeably excited, doctor Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof went on the podium and, in Esperanto language, began his speech with these words:

I greet you, dear comrades, brothers and sisters from the great world human family who gather together from near and far lands from the world to shake your hands one another in the name of the great idea which links us together. Let us be fully aware of all the importance of this day, because today within the generous walls of Boulogne-sur-Mer have met not French with English, nor Russians with Polish, but people with people”.


In the following years, he visited congresses in Geneva, Cambridge, Dresden, Barcelona, Washington, Antwerp, Paris and Cracow. 11th Congress was organized in 1915, in San Francisco. Only Americans attended it because European Esperantists fought on the battlefields of World War I.

Doctor Zamenhof followed the horrors of war in Warsaw. This good man who loved people so much and wanted peace between nations, now listened about destruction and killings every day. Worn with years of work and overwhelmed with tragic events the humanity faced, his health started to deteriorate. On April 14, 1917, his heart stopped beating.

This great man, who had friends and followers in all parts of the world, was buried modestly. Only Warsaw’s Esperantists, including the loyal Antoni Grabowski, attended the funeral. Because of war, nobody else couldn’t attend.


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2 comments: on "Doctor Esperanto - Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof"

Bill Chapman said...

It was interesting to see the information of Dr Zamenhof and Esperanto here. Your readers may gain from this the idea that Esperanto is something purely historical. In fact this planned second language is spoken by a growing population of people across the world. A good place to look is http://www.lernu.net

Saill said...

Thank you Bill for your insight on this article. I must admit that i was trying to focus more on Zamenhof's life through this short story...and to show respect and admiration to his character and ideal he was trying to accomplish his whole life. A lot of people do know what Esperanto is, and they can find a lot of information about it, but few know something about the man behind it. Also, thank you for this useful link you posted.

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