Thursday, December 11, 2014

Silbernick Defends German Use of Esperanto

Acquitted? Was it on trial?
The New York Sun published a lengthy letter about Esperanto on December 11, 1916. It’s long enough that I was inclined to quote it only in part, until I reached the bottom and saw who wrote it: Joseph Silbernik. The first time I wrote about Mr. Silbernik, it was quickly pointed out to me (thanks!) that Silbernik was the maiden name of Klara Zamenhof. Her father, Marcus Silbernik, funded the publication of the the Unua Libro. I have since learned that Joseph Silbernik was Klara Zamenhof’s brother.

Or so says a page on the Esperanto Wikipedia. There is no source for the assertion, but it seems to work out. Joseph Silbernik was about 21 years younger than Aleksandro Silbernik (Klara’s father). Another Silbernik relative, Joseph Levite (Klara’s brother-in-law) lived in Warsaw, and it was at his home that Ludovik met Klara.[1] But like Ludovik, Joseph was born in Bialystok, about seven years before Ludovik. It looks like there were a number of intersections between the Zamenhof and Silbernik families.

Now we know that in defending Esperanto, there was family honor at stake. In becoming an Esperantist, Joseph Silbernik was following the example of his father, Aleksandro Silibernik, who learned his son-in-law’s language (the Silberniks seem to have been quite enthusiastic about Esperanto, unlike Dr. Zamenhof’s father, Marcus Zamenhof).
ESPERANTO ACQUITTED
The Germans Started Their Publicity in it Prior to August 31, 1914.
To the Editor of The SunSir: I do not become unduly dejected by the prognostications about Esperanto’s gloomy future drawn by Mr. Albert Schinz with a pen dipped in tears.

Esperanto has had a goodly number of calamity howlers. When, shortly after Esperanto had reached France, the Reds started Esperanto clubs and began to publish an Esperanto newspaper, the blessed calamity howlers got on the job with their usual shriek: “Esperanto is surely doomed.” Result: Esperanto is taken up by the college professors, and the proud Sorbonne becomes the rendezvous of gay[2] Paris’s best wits and raconteurs, who gather there every month to crack jokes and swap stories in the choicest Esperanto, for the have found that they can “carry on” better in Esperanto than in French.
Since Mr. Silbernik’s letter is rather long, I’ll break at various points and comment. He’s aware of the early association (which has continued) between Esperanto and left-wing movements.[3] Happily, the association of Esperanto with various socialist, anarchist, or labor groups has not doomed Esperanto. I suspect that Esperanto has, and always will be, a tough sell for conservatives.[4]
When the free thinkers and the revolutionists on general principles of Rome took up Esperanto, up went that familiar cry, with the result that Pope Leo XIII. ordered the translation of the Four Gospels into Esperanto, and this was soon followed by the establishment of two Esperanto Catholic papers and the organization of the Universal Esperanto Catholic Union,[5] which, up to the war, held congresses every year, the last one, representing seventeen dialects, having been held shortly before the outbreak of the war in Paris, in the Catholic University, under the presidency of the Archbishop of Paris, when the late Pope sent his benediction.

The same familiar blessed cry went up when the Republicans in Madrid took up Esperanto, with the same result. King Alfonso became an ardent Esperantist, and at the fifth international congress of Esperantists, held in Barcelona in 1909, the King accepted the honorary presidency and bestowed upon Dr. Zamenhof, whose ancestors were said to have been expelled from Spain in 1492, the Order of Elizabeth the Catholic.
This is the first suggestion I’ve seen that Zamenhof had Sephardic ancestors. I suppose it’s possible, since a bit of quick research shows that Sephardic Jews did move into southern Poland after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (i.e.: 1492), but the name Zamenhof doesn’t come up on a list of Sephardic names of Polish Jews. However, in giving the honor to Zamenhof, perhaps rather distant relatives were close enough.

Mr. Silbernick finally gets to the meat of the matter. This is a continuation of a discussion that started on November 25, 1916, when Creston Coigne wrote a letter to the sun about corresponding with both sides of the conflict in Europe. This drew a response from Professor Albert Schinz who felt that the Germans were using the Esperanto movement as useful dupes. Not so, said Mr. Silbernik.
Now I will take up the charge of Mr. Schinz against the Germans. Although my sentiments are strongly pro-ally and I would like to see Prussian militarism destroyed forever, yet candor compels me to exonerate the Germans from the aspersions cast upon the by Mr. Schinz, over the shoulders of the French, as regards their ulterior motives in their use of Esperanto. His argument is that “ever since the Germans understood that they were not going to win the war and that they could not impose German as a world language they have favored Esperanto as much as they could to offset the plans of the Allies, who were preparing to take up the famous plan of Chapelier,” &c.
This nicely summarizes Professor Schinz’s views. The Chapelier plan was that all English-speaking countries would make the study of French compulsory, and that all French-speaking countries would make the study of English compulsory, thus encouraging all other countries to push the study of English, French, or both. The Germans didn’t abandon their plan for German as the world-wide language. They were still thinking about that twenty years later.
Unless Mr. Schinz will assert that on August 31, 1914, the Germans already understood that they were not going to win the war his argument falls to the ground, for No. 1 of the Esperanto war bulletins bears the above date. Moreover, a double sheet, giving a résumé of the happenings since that unfortunate episode at Sarajevo,[6] was published a week bore that first number. So ti would seem that only a week or two after the war started the Germans had already begun to make preparations to give out to the neutral Powers in the international language their side of the unfortunate controversy and some of the progress of the war that followed it.

Moreover, for some years before the war started the Germans led all other countries in the application of Esperanto to their foreign commerce.

The man most instrumental in inducing the publication by the Government of those Esperanto leaflets and pamphlets in Esperanto is Dr. Steche, a member of the Saxon Landbtag, a man of great influence and an intimate friend of the King of Saxony, and a fervent Esperantist. Shortly after M. Michelin of automobile tire fame gave 20,000 francs to be distributed in prizes to French students for writing commendable essays in Esperanto, Dr. Steche gave 10,000 marks for the same purpose to German students. Anybody who has had the occasion to meet the gentlemen how are aiding in the publication of the Esperanto war literature, as I have met them at several international Esperanto congresses in Europe, long before Charpelier was heard of, knows full well that those men are simply ardent Esperantists, to whom Esperanto is something more than a language; a tool, if you please, but a tool not for evil but for good, an instrument which, let us hope will go a long way to bring about a worldwide federation of nations.[7]
Jozefo Silbernik
New York, December 9.
Take that Professor Schinz! Your dates are wrong. Well, Albert Schinz was a noted professor of French, not of history or math. Maybe he wasn’t so good with dates.

Mr. Silbernik notes that he attended several international Esperanto congresses. No big surprise, given that his sister and brother-in-law would be there. I will have to start searching the photographs for his face.

This story continues here.


  1. Noted in Privat’s Vivo de Zamenhof.  ↩
  2. Considering yesterday’s post, I should note that here the word is being used in the sense of “merry.”  ↩
  3. I saw a Facebook post not long ago that suggested that the movement meet George Alan Connor’s goal (which lead to the demise of the Esperanto Association of North America) and purge the moment of left-wingers. No.  ↩
  4. Despite George Alan Connor. I’m fine with being proved wrong.  ↩
  5. The Internacia Katolika Uniĝo Esperantista has been in existence since 1910. They publish a magazine, Espero Katolika.  ↩
  6. June 28, 1914, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  ↩
  7. Like a League or maybe the nations could be United.  ↩

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