Friday, October 31, 2014

A Jewish Esperantist in Washington

Profits and Esperanto
First, I’d like to note that as in 2014, October 31, 1913 was also a Friday. For this story (which has nothing to do with Halloween, if you want shocks, look here), that’s an important point, because the even happened at a synagogue. It should surprise no one that the group had its meeting on a Thursday night, and not during synagogue services. This is one of those rare stories of Jews and Esperanto.

It’s somewhat ironic, but even with the actions of the Esperanto community decrying the blood libel trial of Menahem Beilis, this seems to have been motivated more by a sense of progress than by specific solidarity with Jews. Although Hitler infamously predicted that the Jews would force everyone to speak Esperanto, there doesn’t seem to be that much in the way of Jewish presence historically in Esperanto. While today there are Esperanto organizations linked to various religious groups, there is no group specifically for Jewish Esperantists.

But on October 30, 1913, William E. Baff clearly tried to change that situation in Washington, D.C. Other sources show that he was long interested in convincing other Jews to speak Esperanto. The Washington Herald reported on this in their edition of October 31.
Esperanto Subject of Lecture.
At the meeting of Argo Lodge, order of the B’nai Brith, in Eighth Street Temple last night. William E. Baff, of this city, one of the pioneer Esperantists in this country, gave a lecture on “Esperanto as an International Language.” Mr. Baff traced the origin and history of Esperanto and discussed the value of an international language in the progress of nations. Mr. Baff was introduced as a fellow member of the lodge and as one of the greatest authorities on Esperanto.
The Eighth Street Temple still exists, but the congregation that built it went to a new building fifty hears ago. The building is now the location of the Greater New Hope Baptist Church.

Mr. Baff certainly could lay claim to being a pioneering Esperantist. In October, 1906, writing in Harper’s Weekly, George MacLoskie (Emeritus Professor of Biology, Princeton University) wrote that
a Hebrew gentleman, Mr. William E. Baff, has been proposing a cosmopolitan review in Esperanto for the widely scattered members of his race;
In June 1908, Lingvo Interncia noted that he had a piece in another magazine, Tra la Mondo (“Through the World”) in their May issue. Mr. Baff’s piece was “kelkaj miroj en Nov-Jorko” (several wonders in New York). Of course, the Wastington Herald points out that he was a member of B’nai Brith.

His Esperanto activity wasn’t confined solely to Jewish matters, but also to his profession. Mr. Baff was a lawyer, and a piece in the American Law Review in 1911 notes that he was the Vice-President for the United States of the International Society of Esperantist Jurists, and one of its organizing members. Mr. Baff wrote a piece on the ISEJ for the January-February 1911 American Law Review.[1]

Further, in 1906 (the same year he was trying to create a publication for Jewish Esperantists), the British Esperantist reported that
Kapitano Baff, 62, Providence-street, Worcester, Mass., Unuigitaj Ŝtatoj de la Norda Ameriko, estas faronta gravan raporton al sia Mimiminestro por enkonduki Esperanton ĉe la militaj lernejoj de West Point kaj Washington kaj la marista lernejo de Annapolis. Li petas, ke ĉiuj samideanoj sendu al li kiel eble plej multo de sciigoj vidpunkte de armeo kaj maristaro.
I should note that the “62” threw me for a moment. It’s not his age, but his street address. “Captain” Baff was 18 or 19 at the time.
Captain Baff, 62 Providence Street, Worcester, Mass, United States of North America, is making an important report to the Secretary of War to incorporate Esperanto at the army schools of West Point and Washington and the naval school of Annapolis. He asks that all who agree send to him as possible the most information from the viewpoint of army or navy. [My translation.]
Baff was born in New Jersey, either in 1887 or 1888 (the records conflict, or I could be looking at more than one William E. Baff, born in New Jersey). His parents were Benjamin and Sarah Baff. From what I can discover, it seems that the Baffs had eight children. Benjamin died in 1909. From 1908–1909, William worked as a teacher. The 1910 Worcester directory notes that William was “removed to New York City,” where I assume he received a law degree.

He later moved Washington, D.C. to work as a patent attorney, a profession he held as early as 1913 (when he would have been 25 or 26). In the 1920s, he moved back to Worcester, Massachusetts, and practiced his trade there, as well as promoting Esperanto, living with his mother and his brother Max, a physician.[2] In 1920, the 32-year-old Mr. Baff was the vice president of the Esperanto Society of North America. The November 1920 Amerika Esperantisto writes of his return to Worcester, Massachusetts, describing him as “nia vicprezidanto.” The February 1921 Amerika Esperantisto[3] notes
Worcester, Mass.—Advokato Wm. E. Baff, vicprez. nia, faris paroladon pri Esperanto ĉe klaso de junulinoj—multe da intereso—oni esperas organizi klason.

Worcester, Mass.—Lawyer William E. Baff, our vice-president, gave a talk about Esperanto at a class of young women—much interest—one hopes to organize a class. [My translation]
It is somewhat surprising that Baff moved back to Worcester, given the advertisement in the 1918 Washington, D.C. business directory. What happened to the the 30-year-old who was advertising “Patents that Pull Profits”?

According to the records, Mr. Baff moved to New York, married, and eventually moved to Los Angeles. Vikipedio notes that Baff was first president of the Esperanto Group of Los Angeles, which was the clue that he’s the William Baff in Los Angeles in the 1940 census, whose birthplace is listed (erroneously) as Pennsylvania. In 1940, he’s married with a 13-year-old daughter (who would be 87, if she’s still alive). A William Baff with the right birthday (or one of them, 19 May 1888) died in Washington, D.C. in December 1964. This matches the date given in the Vikipedio entry. No word if any of his siblings spoke Esperanto.

  1. The current group, the Esperanta Jura Asocio, is not continuous with Mr. Baff’s group, as they date back only to 1989.  ↩
  2. In 1931, Max was still living with his mother. He was about 47 at the time. In 1940, listed as a 60-year-old (the Baffs seem somewhat inconsistent with their ages), Max is still living with his mother (who is listed as 78, which is more-or-less in keeping with her being 59 in 1920). The census notes that Mr. Baff was a native Yiddish speaker.  ↩
  3. Which erroneously dates itself February 1821, a neat trick for an Esperanto journal.  ↩

You can follow my blog on Twitter (@impofthediverse) or on Facebook. If you like this post, share it with your friends. If you have a comment just for me, e-mail me at
This blog runs solely on ego! Follow this blog! Comment on this post! Let me know that you want to read more of it!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...