The town of Bialystock, Poland, might be most famous for giving its name to Mel Brooks’s blustering theater producer. But this week, it’s getting attention for the accomplishments of Ludwig Lazar Zamenhof (né Eliezer Samenhof), the Jewish Bialystocker who invented the “international language” of Esperanto. In honor of Zamenhof’s 150th birthday, Bialystock is opening a center devoted to Esperanto today, in advance of this weekend’s 94th World Esperanto Conference, also in the city.

With words derived mainly from Romantic, Germanic, and Slavic tongues, its ingenious system of prefixes and suffixes—heavily indebted to Hebrew’s linguistic structure—enables speakers to coin new words on the fly, obviating the need for an extensive pre-established vocabulary. The BBC estimates that one million people around the world speak Esperanto today. (While Zamenhof believed that an uneducated person could learn to speak Esperanto in a week, the BBC observes, Britishly, that “this assessment was probably optimistic.”)

Esperanto represents the other side of the same coin of Zionism’s project to rejuvenate Hebrew, Ilan Stavans points out in Nextbook Press’s Resurrecting Hebrew. Where Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the founder of modern Hebrew, propounded a sort of linguistic Jewish nationalism, Zamenhof—a one-time Zionist, who was born one year after Ben-Yehuda—sought the Jews’ salvation in a utopian linguistic universalism: a self-consciously international language that could further the cause of peace. For a time, Zamenhof’s vision bore fruit: organized groups for Jews and Arabs to converse in Esperanto were a common feature of Mandatory Palestine. After Israel’s founding, however, such contacts largely disintegrated. Perhaps the two sides should take a trip to Bialystock.

Esperanto celebrates power of hope [BBC]
Esperanto centre opens in Bialystock [Polskie Radio]
Resurrecting Hebrew