Friday, 31 August 2012

Remember Lidia

The next few months will see the seventieth anniversary of the death of Lidia Zamenhof. It is impossible to be more exact than that, since no one knows the actual date of Lidia's death for sure — she was swept up in the mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto in the summer of 1942 and murdered by the Nazis at the Treblinka extermination camp some time thereafter.

Lidia, the daughter of Ludwig Zamenhof, founder of the international auxiliary language Esperanto, did not learn to communicate using her father's creation until the relatively late age of nine. In time, however, she became a committed Esperantist and itinerant teacher, effectively forgoing the possibility of marriage and children in order to travel the world teaching the language using the "Cseh" method, a form of interactive lecture to very large groups of learners. One of her best-known translations is of Henryk Sienkiewicz's Quo Vadis.

She was also a woman of faith, first espousing the homaranismo (religious humanism) of her father, derived from the teachings of the Jewish philosopher Hillel the Elder, and later the Bahá'í Faith, a monotheistic religion founded in the nineteenth century in Islamic Iran. The Bahá'ís have a centre on Belfast's Lisburn Road. Their teachings include the equality of all human beings and the primacy of science over dogma.

The Blether Region recently read Wendy Heller's biography Lidia: The Life of Lidia Zamenhof, Daughter of Esperanto, a moving and inspiring book. One eye-opener was the extent of antisemitism in inter-war Poland, possibly even as virulent as that in Germany right up to the time of Kristallnacht in 1938. As Theodor Herzl once said of Central Europe, "das Maerchen und das Sprichwort sind antisemitisch."

Lidia herself was unfortunate enough to be thrown out of the United States on the eve of World War II for allegedly breaking the terms of her tourist visa by accepting payment for Esperanto classes. She was later imprisoned in the Warsaw Ghetto, refusing many offers of help to escape out of concern for the welfare of those making them, despite being all too aware that she faced death. A later attempt to have her declared a Bahá'í martyr was unsuccessful.

One of Ludwig Zamenhof's best-known quotes concerns the need for tolerance of others.

"I am profoundly convinced that every nationalism offers humanity only the greatest unhappiness ... It is true that the nationalism of oppressed peoples – as a natural self-defensive reaction – is much more excusable than the nationalism of peoples who oppress; but, if the nationalism of the strong is ignoble, the nationalism of the weak is imprudent; both give birth to and support each other ..."

Most likely Zamenhof was referring to the Poles when he wrote of the "nationalism of oppressed peoples". No one can know what he would make of the world today, and in particular what conclusions he might have drawn from the murder of his children. Would he have applied the phrase to the excesses of the Palestinians or to those of the Israelis?

Perhaps, fair man that he was, he might apply it to both.

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