Lidia Zamenhof: The Bahá’í Faith, Esperanto, Politics,
Anti-Semitism, Black Americans, & the USA

(Excerpts from Lidia by Wendy Heller)

Although Lidia’s students and friends in Lyon regarded her with affection and admiration, not everyone in France loved Lidia. The workers’ Esperanto groups, with few exceptions, did not support her courses. Lidia was considered to belong to the ‘neutral’ Esperanto movement and she did not participate in anything having to do with the politically leftist workers’ movement. ‘I have no contact with SAT’ [Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (World Association of Non-Nationalists), the major organization of the workers’ Esperanto movement], she once wrote a correspondent. ‘I wish to belong to no struggle, thus also not to class struggle.’ Lidia appears to have had at least one real enemy in France, although whoever it was remained anonymous. From Paris, once the stronghold of the traitorous Louis de Beaufront, came rumors which some of the Lyon Esperantists heard, claiming that Lidia Zamenhof was a spy. Nothing could have been more preposterous. The Lyon Esperantists suggested this was probably the work of one person, and was a result of the fanatical nationalism and suspicion of the time. If Lidia ever knew of the rumor, she seems not to have mentioned it, as was her way, and continued with her work.


Mr Dodge also wrote Lidia of his concern about the attitude of some well-known Bahá’ís toward Esperanto. The Bahá’ís, he felt, should ‘all be theoretically very favorable to Esperanto’, but he had been dismayed to find among them ‘much indifference to the matter of international language and even an attitude of doubt or skepticism about Esperanto itself’. Although Mr Dodge, who was a Unitarian, knew of Shoghi Effendi’s supportive attitude and that of the Bahá’í National Spiritual Assembly, he had received reports which disturbed him including the news that ‘one of the grandsons of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’ (undoubtedly Ruhi Afnan, who was later declared a Covenant-breaker because of his disobedience to the Guardian) had expressed ‘skeptical if not unfavorable statements about Esperanto’ at the Green Acre Bahá’í Summer School. This sort of thing, Mr Dodge feared, would dampen the enthusiasm of the other Bahá’ís. He told Lidia she had her work cut out for her in America.

By the tenth of June Lidia had not yet heard from the chairman other organizing committee. Although time was growing short, she still had not been able to make any real plans for her journey.

As she had discovered often during her years of traveling, her own plans could not always be realized. Lidia was aware of the racial problems in the United States, and she was eager to introduce black Americans to Esperanto. Twice she wrote Della Quinlan that she wished to give a Cseh course in Harlem, the black district of New York. But apparently this idea was never seriously considered by those in the US who were responsible for organizing her classes.

In July Lidia, still in Paris, received tragic news. Her close friend and ‘adopted mother’ Marie Borel had died in Lyon after a long illness. Lidia hurried south to attend Mrs Borel’s funeral in Arles. Then she went sadly home to Warsaw.

Poland was still rebuilding from the devastation of the First World War. In Warsaw, on one of the main thoroughfares stood an ominous giant bomb, with an admonition to all to work to keep the peace. But as the decade of the 1930s moved toward its close, the attention of many Poles was focused not on the great looming threat of war from its neighbor Germany, but rather on Poland’s own Jews.

Anti-Semitism in Lidia’s homeland was growing more intense. During the years Marshal Pilsudski had ruled Poland as dictator, from 1926 to his death in 1935, overt anti-Semitism had been kept somewhat under control. But although Pilsudski was not anti-Semitic himself, the attitudes of the rest of the country had not changed. Poles continued to blame the Jews for the nation’s troubles, and two years after Pilsudski’s death, in 1937, the new leaders of Poland adopted an official government policy of Anti-Semitism. They had concluded that way to solve Poland’s economic problems was to force the Jews out of their jobs. In what has been called a ‘cold pogrom’, laws were passed directed at squeezing Jews out of their livelihoods, and there were anti-Jewish boycotts, made easier by a law requiring that all shop signs carry the owner’s name.

But the Polish government aimed at a more drastic ‘solution’ than removing the Jews from Polish economic and cultural life. They intended to force the Jews out of Poland altogether and had demanded that the League of Nations give them a colony where it could deport them. Throughout the late 1930s, while the attention of the rest of Europe was riveted on the menace of Hitler, Poland—lulled by the nonaggression pact it had signed with Germany—felt its most serious concern was how to get rid of its Jews.

The Universal Congress of Esperanto in August 1937 was to be a Jubilee celebration in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of the language. For once Lidia did not have to travel to attend the congress, for it was to be held in Warsaw. While other cities, even Krakow, had welcomed the Esperanto congresses, if only for the tourist income that the Esperantist visitors provided, in Warsaw in 1937 the reception was distinctly cold. The congress, Lidia wrote to Shoghi Effendi, had ‘many difficulties’, for Esperanto had never been popular in Poland, where many considered it ‘a Jewish affair’. Some of the newspapers, Lidia told him, printed distortions and falsehoods against the Esperantists, and one of the articles contained an attack on the Bahá’í Faith. As a result of this, however, she added, one of the Warsaw Esperantists had become very interested in the religion.

During the congress, a special visit to the birthplace of Dr Zamenhof in Bialystok had been arranged. Afterward, at lunch, one Esperantist from England found himself seated near Zofia and Lidia. The restaurant was tiny, the Esperantists many and the tables were crowded so closely together that there was hardly space to move between them. A band played as they dined, and every other tune seemed to be La Espero. Upon hearing it, the Esperantists traditionally would stand in respect, as for a national anthem. It was difficult to balance the soup and stand up in the cramped space, but every time the anthem was played the Esperantists respectfully rose to their feet, or tried to. When a waitress passing with a bowl of soup spilled it all over the English Esperantist, he recalled that it was Zofia and Lidia who came to his rescue and helped him present himself as a ‘decent citizen’ afterward.


While staying in Philadelphia, Lidia also spoke in Baltimore (though it was a very stormy night and not many people came) and in Washington, DC, on ‘The Return of Spiritual Heroism’. Doris Lohse, who met Lidia in Washington, later recalled that when Lidia came into a meeting, she was ‘so very humble, very shy’. The people in the audience would look around the room for the speaker, not expecting it was the quiet little woman in glasses who sat among them. Then at the last minute, when she was introduced, Miss Lohse recalled, voices would whisper, ‘“Who is she?”That is Lidia.” And then this wonderful talk.’

‘She was simple,’ Doris Lohse remembered, ‘and still you saw at first glance that she was an intelligent, fine girl. She was very mature. She wouldn’t begin to talk; she would first wait until somebody spoke to her. She was so unassuming. . . and so satisfied with little. She was very selfless. Just a great light.’

Her talk that evening in Washington impressed the audience as ‘very earnest and effective’. She had prepared the speech with care and seemed to have it nearly all memorized. Although she had brought the text with her, she laid the manuscript down on the table and scarcely glanced at it.

Now that Lidia had been in America for several months, she was finally getting used to the New World. She no longer felt the homesickness she had suffered in her earlier years of traveling, although she still couldn’t say she especially liked to travel: ‘not at all,’ she said. She loved her work, but, she admitted, if it hadn’t been for the friends she had made in America, Bahá’ís and Esperantists, she would have felt ‘somewhat strange at the beginning among the skyscrapers’. Her work in America had proved much more difficult than in France. ‘One must sow a lot to reap but little,’ she wrote a correspondent in Europe.

The diet in America also took some getting used to—she thought Americans used too much pepper on their food. The family she was staying with in Philadelphia were vegetarians, ‘so also I have had to become somewhat of a vegetarian,’ she wrote. ‘Although I am used to eating meat, still it isn’t very difficult for me.’

Even after Lidia left New York, the two men who had caused problems before continued to stir up trouble. The gossip spread to Washington, DC, poisoning people against her and dampening the enthusiasm of the Washington Esperantists, one of whom had returned from a visit to New York with ‘quite a tale of woe about Lidia’. The Esperantists in the capital, wrote Josephine Kruka, were ‘not enthusiastic’ about inviting Lidia to give a course in their city. Some had been hesitant from the first, doubting that even a course given by the daughter of Zamenhof would be a success. Now they were even more discouraged, and were glad to let other cities go ahead of them in Lidia's itinerary. In the end, Lidia never did give a course in the capital city of the United States.

To make matters worse, the antipathy against Lidia had taken a new direction. ‘Merry hell has broken loose again,’ Della wrote Josephine. It was being said that a number of people had complained about Lidia, saying that outside her classes she was unapproachable and even rude. They even accused her of acting superior because she was Zamenhof's daughter. Ernest Dodge, in Washington, to whom these stories had been reported, was much shaken by the accusations and suggested she might be suffering from ill health, overwork, or anxiety about her family in Poland. But, he wrote Della, if Lidia (whom he had not yet met personally) was really such a difficult personality, he questioned whether her visit to America was worthwhile after all. ‘I think you will realize’, he added, ‘how these reports cannot help affecting the thoughts of some of us.’

Della retorted that the episode had been ‘prearranged’ by the antagonists. She believed that any misunderstandings that had come up were due to the fact that European and American manners were very different. Lidia didn’t understand American ways, which often seemed rude and insulting to her. Some of her students were unhappy that she would not allow the open discussion of various points of grammar in her classes, but the Cseh method—according to which the entire class had to be in Esperanto—did not allow it.

At last the nature of the accusations that had been made against Lidia behind her back was revealed. The man in whose home Lidia had stayed, Della had been told, had called her a ‘liar’ and a ‘thief’. These could be easily dismissed as irrational ravings, but there was something else which, while equally false, could have been seriously damaging to Lidia if it were spread around. In the presence of others he had claimed Lidia had come to America to spread ‘communistic doctrines’. The extent of his confused mental state was clear, at least to Della, when she learned that ‘in almost the next breath he proposed to them that they start a fund for her to travel throughout America’. When his listeners protested that they thought it unwise to contribute to a fund for someone teaching communism, ‘he became badly mixed up in his endeavors to reconcile this proposal with his accusations’.

Knowing that the man was not responsible for his remarks, Della did not take his outbursts seriously. But others who did not know him well began repeating the stories and hurried to Della in alarm. ‘Although these accusations are completely absurd,’ she told Ernest Dodge, ‘they do reflect quite accurately the depth of the malice that is felt toward her in a certain quarter.’ What damage could be done to Lidia, Della worried, ‘by judicious letters written here and there throughout the country?’

Josephine thought that Della tended to get ‘a little too emotional’ and advised her to ‘let the whole matter rest’. She warned her: ‘We cannot let a split come between the Bahá’ís and the Esperantists. It would be tragic.’ Josephine felt that it was the Bahá’ís’ fault for allowing the original confusion and misunderstanding to occur at the beginning of Lidia’s visit.

Lidia gave no sign she knew about the goings-on in New York, and still showed friendly concern for her former hosts. She was puzzled as to why Della was getting so upset and had begged Lidia not to write to them.

Earnest Dodge’s wary attitude changed when he finally met Lidia at her talk in Washington, DC. He told Della that his conversation with Lidia that evening left ‘a very pleasant impression’, and he felt that prospects for ‘her future labors’ were ‘favorable’.

Although Lidia was teaching only one course in Philadelphia, correspondence took up all of her free time, as she made arrangements for her future courses and lectures—laboriously typing out copies of letters for Della—and wrote to friends and acquaintances. But somehow she found time to write articles for World Order and for La Praktiko.

Even while in the United States, she was teaching the Bahá’í Faith to correspondents in Poland and France. ‘Esperanto correspondence about the Bahá’í Faith takes a lot of time,’ she wrote, ‘for which I am very happy.’ After one of her correspondents wrote to her about his experiments with psychic phenomena, Lidia cautioned him about trying to make contact with other-worldly forces and revealed that on occasion she also had had psychic experiences. ‘I must confess’, she told him, ‘that your relations with the other world rather disturb me. I also at one time used to feel some kind of influences, but I never was sure whether they were friendly or unfriendly. Here, on earth, we still do not have enough knowledge about the forces and ways of the other world. In submitting to the influences it is as if we blindly expose ourselves to the actions of forces unknown to us, and those forces may not always be favorable. The dark forces which are at present pushing the world into chaos can also act on the psychic plane. On the earth, enemies sometimes come to us as wolves in sheep's clothing, to outwit us. It can be the same also on the psychic plane.’

Lidia had begun to write to Harold Foulds, an Esperantist in Cleveland, encouraging him in his study of the Bahá’í Faith. ‘It is more than a Faith,’ she told him eagerly, ‘because laying foundations and solving the perplexing world problems which now torment humanity so deeply, it is not merely a religion, but it is a new Order in the world. It is also like an abundantly laid table, upon which each can find something according to his pleasure: the believer—a high and noble faith; the philosopher—lofty philosophical thought; the sociologist—a solution to world problems; and everyone—new joy and courage.’


At the end of February 1938 Lidia left Philadelphia for Detroit, Michigan. Although there were only two dozen active Esperantists in that city, they worked hard on publicity for Lidia’s course, sending out thousands of leaflets and arranging interviews, broadcasts and lectures. A heavy speaking schedule had been planned for her and she addressed a variety of groups including the Bahá’ís, the Women Lawyers’Association, Zonta Club, the Vegetarian Society, two Masonic auxiliary organizations, and she gave a talk and demonstration lesson to 120 at the YMCA. While in Michigan she also traveled to address gatherings in Ann Arbor, Marysville, Flint and Roseville. The Bahá’ís of Maywood, Illinois, arranged for her to speak before an audience of 200 at Irving School, where the principal was an Esperantist and a number of teachers were studying the language. She gave a speech in English over WWJ, the Detroit News’ radio station (‘I hope my bad accent was itself propaganda for Esperanto’, she said afterward), and two broadcasts in Polish over station WJBK, where her speaking ability drew very favorable comments from Polish radio station operators, and a Polish paper in Toledo picked up the broadcast and published an article about it. In all, in Detroit a remarkable thirty-two articles were published about her in nineteen periodicals in seven languages including Polish, Bulgarian, German, Ukrainian and Yiddish.

Lidia’s hosts in Detroit were Robert and Mabelle Davis. The Davises were Bahá’í Esperantists and Mrs Davis frequently translated for Lidia at the many public talks she gave while in Detroit. Lidia had hoped to hold one of the Esperanto courses in the black YWCA, but all the classes were held in a store-front on the ground floor of the Convention Hall. She was disappointed that ‘we have not one Negro in the courses’. She had also hoped to speak before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but this never came about. She was told that their programs were ‘too full’.


While staying at Roy Wilhelm’s mountain home [in North Lovell, Maine], Lidia had time to write to Harold Foulds, gently encouraging him in his spiritual search. ‘In the world today there are many diverse “isms”, schools, theories, philosophies, and we see people flocking to them,’ she wrote. ‘They grow rapidly, like wild weeds, and like weeds, rapidly die off. A tree which must stand for centuries grows slowly and slowly gives fruit. That is true of the rapidity with which superficial ideas spread and perish, while the great truths take root slowly in order to last a long, long time. The same is true also in relation to the individual in whose heart the roots of the tree of eternity only gradually become strengthened, while grasses of fantasy and man-made theories would quickly find a place in it. Therefore, may your heart be like rich ground, in which the roots of the tree of eternity become strong. Plow the soil Of your heart and water it with Divine wisdom and inspiration which this great Teaching of today’s Messenger of God brings. . .’

‘Lidia wasn't too happy about leaving that paradise,’ Elcore Ebersole recalled, but at last they took a bus back to Kittery, Maine.

During the first week of August, Lidia returned to Green Acre. She was busy translating again. Earlier that year, Mrs Arnelia Collins had told her that Shoghi Effendi wanted to have Baháʼu’lláh and the New Era translated into Polish. Although Lidia had never translated anything into Polish before, she had written the Guardian: ‘If there is no one else to do this, I should try it, if you wish me rather to do this work than other translations into Esperanto. Though my present work takes nearly all my time I shall nevertheless try to do what you direct me to do.’

Now at last she had some free time, but rather than rest she worked feverishly, spurred on by a letter from Shoghi Effendi asking her to finish the translation as soon as possible. She hadn’t been taking part in the prayer sessions at Green Acre regularly, she admitted in a letter to Roan [Orloff Stone], ‘because there are various forms of prayer and one of them is work. But in spite of all the effort I don't accomplish as much as I would like to.’

Many Bahá’ís visited Green Acre, and, staying there for almost the entire summer, Lidia was able to be with several people who had become very dear to her. Dorothy Baker, who was vacationing nearby, came to Green Acre and gave a talk on prayer and fasting. Afterward, Lidia wrote Roan, ‘My dear, if I had come to America only to hear this talk and see the inspiration that spoke through her, even then the trip would have been worth ten times the effort. And when I compared myself to that inspired angel, I wept at my insignificance.’

May Maxwell, staying nearby in Portsmouth, had come to visit, she wrote Della. ‘Yesterday I had two hours privately with her in my room—simply heavenly!’

One of those who had attended the Esperanto lessons at Green Acre was Louis Gregory, the outstanding black Bahá’í teacher. ‘I learned to love and admire him very much . . .’ Lidia wrote. ‘If some of those people who have racial prejudice could know him, they surely would understand well that there are few white people that one could compare to Mr Gregory!’

Roan returned to Green Acre to find Lidia wrapped up in her translating. ‘“Shoghi Effendi,” Lidia said, her face aglow, “has told me that I must hurry and finish this as soon as possible.”’


SOURCE: Heller, Wendy. Lidia: The Life of Lidia Zamenhof, Daughter of Esperanto. Oxford: George Ronald, 1985.

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