When we first proposed this project, we described it as a “pilgrimage of Esperanto holy sites”, and if Esperanto were a religion, Ludwik Zamenhof would be its chief saint (in fact he is revered as a god in the religion of Oomoto – it’s a long story). An adoration for Zamenhof is one of the few things that unites the hugely diverse Esperanto community. A sign on the side of his grave reads “Starigita de Tutmonda Esperantaro” – erected by the worldwide community of Esperantists.
I (Angelica) visited Ernest Hemingway’s grave a few weeks ago and felt nothing but a kind of voyeuristic discomfort. Zamenhof’s grave, however, was a lovely place to visit, a moment of peace in a long few days of travel.
Maybe it was a sense of connection, however slim. I never met Hemingway, and know nothing about him apart from his books, have no connection to him. I never met Zamenhof, either, but in a small way I’m part of a movement he started. When I stood in front of his monument this morning, I was wearing a pin with a green star that matched the mosaic on the grave. In a linguistic sense, I consider him an intellectual ancestor. It felt right for me to pay my respects to Zamenhof in a way that would not apply to almost any other historical figure.
Maybe it was the location. The Okopowa Street Jewish Cemetery is a serene place, if a sad one; it holds the mass graves of victims of the Warsaw ghetto, but it also contains two centuries’ worth of peacetime burials, and continues to be used today. These days it’s a forest filled with over 200,000 graves in various states of decay. It might be morbid, but there’s a sense of enduring community in so many monuments cheek by jowl. Zamenhof’s grave is one of the most well-maintained of these, in a prime plot of land near the entrance. Warsaw is proud of its adopted son.
Esperanto is justly proud of him, too. He was a powerfully idealistic man, maybe one of the most successful idealists of the 19th century. His utopian movement is alive and well – maybe not as widespread or as utopian as he might have hoped for, but that was always true. In an era of almost rabid nationalism, he opposed nationalism even when it might have benefited him. He declined to join a union of Jewish Esperantists, writing that “…if the nationalism of the strong is ignoble, the nationalism of the weak is imprudent; both give birth to and support each other…” (as quoted by N. Z. Maimon in the Nica Literaturo Review) I can’t help but wonder what he would have thought of the European Union – what he would have thought of dozens of political and societal developments since his time. In a way, I suppose that’s one reason I’m doing this project. Zamenhof is dead, but the language that looks up to him and bears his stamp yet lives, and I want to know the opinions of its speakers.
Esperanto word of the day: heliko, snail. “I can’t believe how many helikoj there were all over the cemetery!”
Part of Esperanto’s flexibility comes from its extensive system of prefixes and suffixes, so here’s a bonus suffix for you: –eg, indicating largeness. “That’s not a heliko, it’s a helikego!” (Inspired by Bri’s insistence on referring to the giant snail she found as a helikego.)