Sunday, January 4, 2015

Prison Officers Plan to Learn Esperanto

P.S. The enemy plans a surprise attack
Until after World War I, there was no established right for prisoners to correspond with their families (that wouldn’t come about until the Geneva Convention of 1929, and the Washington Internacia Klubo, one of the Washington, D.C. Esperanto clubs of that period[1] didn’t qualify as an international relief organization. Nevertheless, they did manage to get a letter from a Bulgarian Esperantist who had been captured by the Romanians.

It’s not clear, looking at the history of the region, how long the letter was delayed. The Washington Herald reported on this on January 4, 1914. On that date, Bulgaria and Romania weren’t a war with each other. Conflict between Bulgaria and Romania in the Second Balkan War had ended on July 25, 1913, and Romania didn’t enter World War I until August 27, 1916. When the Herald made its report, there hadn’t been any hostilities between the two countries for five months, and hostilities wouldn’t recur for more than two years (and WWI had yet to commence). Yet the described situation doesn’t fit the idea of a civilian prison.[2]

How long had the letter been delayed before it was received by the Internacia Klubo and reported on in the Washington Herald?
Internacia Klubo.
The Internacia Klubo of Esperantists was pleasantly entertained by the reading of a letter recently received from a Bulgarian prisoner in the hands of the Roumanians. It was explained that the lost letter had been intercepted and the prisoner called up before the officers to read it. These officers looked over the shoulder of the prisoner while he read. On its conclusion they expressed satisfaction with the clearness of the Esperanto letter and that in a short time they would take up the study of that language.

The proposition to change the weekly meeting night from Monday to Wednesday was discussed by Prof. Mayer, N. S. Guimont, J. A. Shell, D. C. Condron, G. C. Stark, F. A. Preston, and H. A. Babcock, but a vote was deferred until the first January meeting.
We can assume that the letter was read at the December 1913 meeting, and so it looks like it was sent at the end of the Second Balkan War. It’s also strange that the prison officers were willing to take the prisoner’s word for its contents. Prisoners of war have been known to encode military intelligence into letters home, and a letter in an unknown language would be even more readily suspected of being some sort of code.

We only get the postscript, explaining the circumstances of the letter’s delay, and not the actual contents of the letter. The behavior of the officers seems curious, almost jolly. “Gosh, what a fascinating language! We’ll be certain to learn it soon!” Maybe they were planning on taking up the language so that if in a future Balkan conflict[3] they’d get the better of any Bulgarians trying to be sneaky in some weird made-up language.

Finally, the change in the meeting date was discussed by only seven people, which raises the question, “how many people were at the meeting?” Were these just the heads of the organization, or were they they only attendees?

  1. Consider that for a moment: a century ago, several cities had more than one Esperanto club.  ↩
  2. I’m not going to assume that all Esperantists are of sterling character, yet the image of a bunch of Washington elites gathering to read the letter of a Bulgarian criminal doesn’t make any sense at all. No, this has to be some sort of prisoner of war.  ↩
  3. Although the Romanians had beat Bulgaria pretty decisively in the Second Balkan War. The Wikipedia entry notes that all Romanian deaths were due to an outbreak of cholera.  ↩

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