He was born to a Jewish family in Białystok, then within the borders of the Russian Empire. His parents were Markus and Rozalia nee Sofer. He had ten siblings and spoke Yiddish, Polish and Russian at home.
From Zamenhof’s childhood, Białystok was a city with a population of 30,000, where Poles, Belarusians, Russians, Germans and Jews lived, but also people from nearby villages came. Languages, cultures and religions mixed there, which – as Zamenhof himself repeatedly emphasized – inspired him to work on a language that could be used by everyone. He believed that the main cause of misunderstandings and disputes between people is the language barrier. At the age of 10, he wrote the drama “The Tower of Babel, or the Bialystok Tragedy in Five Acts”, in which he expressed his conviction that people need one common language.
At the age of 13, he graduated from cheder and began studying in a gymnasium. In the years 1879–1881 he studied medicine in Moscow, then in Warsaw (until 1885). He specialized in ophthalmology in Vienna in 1886. After graduation, he worked as an ophthalmologist in Warsaw.
Languages remained his passion from childhood. In 1887, he published a book in Russian, International Language. Foreword and a complete textbook “, in which he presented a project of a new language. He published his work under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto, which literally translates to “Doctor Hoping”.
Esperanto was to become a common worldview basis for people belonging to different cultures and religions. A universal basis, because everyone could learn the language in a few weeks; neutral, because it is not related to any nation.
The new language, called Esperanto after its creator’s pseudonym, was quickly gaining supporters all over the world. Societies of Esperantists were founded in Europe and the USA. Literature of Esperanto was created and numerous translations into this language, and the Esperanto press was published, including a magazine for the blind Esperantists. Beginning with the first World Congress of Esperantists, held in Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1905, they were held every year.
“For a language to become common, it is not enough to call it such. The international language, like any national language, is the property of the public; the author waives all personal rights to him for ever.”
Besides the need to solve the common language problem, Zamenhof was worried about the division of people on religious grounds. In 1901, under the pseudonym “Homo sum” (Latin I am human), he published a book entitled “Hilelism as the solution to the Jewish question.” Hilelism (the name derived from the name of Hillel) assumed that Jews were brought closer to the followers of other religions. Besides being followers of Judaism, they should serve the state they live in, and religion and language should be private matters. Hilelism was not well received by Jews, but also Esperantists, who treated this idea as the author’s private affair. In 1906, Zamenhof slightly modified his view of religion and created the idea of Homaranism. It assumed the full unification of all nations, one common language and one religion. It was mainly addressed to Esperantists, but also gained very little support in the world.
Ludwik Zamenhof died on April 14, 1917 in Warsaw. During the funeral, in a farewell speech, the rabbi and preacher Samuel Poznański said, among others: “The moment will come that the whole Polish earth will understand what radiant fame this great son has given his homeland …” Esperantists estimate that today there are over a thousand places in the world bearing the name Zamenhofa or Esperanto. It is not known exactly how many Esperantists themselves there are; the most frequently given number is several hundred thousand people who know this language.