Usona Esperantisto № 2018:4 (jul-aug)

Dr. William Sol Benson, America’s Original Esperantist (part 2)

Lasta ĝisdatigo: 2018-08-15

The first part of this article appeared in our previous issue, № 2018:3.

The cover page of Benson’s Universala Esperanto Metodo.

I am going to live one hundred and forty years. If you have sense enough you will do the same. So you see, we are only children now, and we can accomplish wonders yet. Yes, make worlds and remake them. A dreamer? Nothing of the kind …
— Dr. William Sol Benson, in a letter from 1928

The Benson School of Esperanto

As Benson evaluated the success of Practical Esperanto, he certainly recognized the value of the illustrations, especially the charts that illustrated the affixes and other grammatical concepts. The instincts he developed during his early career as a photographer undoubtedly led him to the conclusion that the illustrations were the most universally valuable materials developed through his initial publishing efforts.

It was at this time that Benson leveraged the illustrations first created for Practical Esperanto into a ten-part correspondence course titled Universala Esperantistigilo and established the Benson School of Esperanto out of his home in Newark. The lesson booklets, each priced at 25¢, were published from 1925 to 1928. Except for a brief foreword and pronunciation guide, these small booklets were devoid of any English whatsoever, relying instead on the power of the illustrations to convey the meaning of the language lessons.

A fragment of a letter that Benson wrote to a young Esperantist in 1928, just as his correspondence course materials were being completed, survives today. His daughter Flora preserved it over the years because it vividly reminded her of her father’s tireless work and ideals for the Esperanto movement. In addition to preserving Dr. Benson’s unique voice and enthusiasm, it demonstrates that he did not consider Esperanto to be merely an idealistic scheme promulgated by impractical dreamers. Instead, he clearly considered it to be a viable path to financial wealth. He saw a world poised to accept Esperanto into the mainstream, and he felt he was uniquely positioned to reap significant profit from a growing demand for Esperanto teaching materials. This vision led him to consolidate his ten Esperantistigilo lessons into a single, comprehensive book. Along with the addition of a great many stories (most collected during his tenure as co-editor of the magazine Esperantista Junularo) and an illustrated dictionary, this new volume was published in 1932 as his Universala Esperanto Metodo.

During this period, the Esperanto language was enjoying something of a golden age. Although Dr. Zamenhof had died in 1917, his adult children, especially his youngest daughter Lidia Zamenhof, carried on the mission of establishing Esperanto as a universal second language. Lidia became a great advocate and teacher of the then-popular Cseh Method of teaching Esperanto — a method that relied on teaching new material by building on Esperanto words and concepts that the students had already learned, rather than explanations of new material in the students’ native language(s). The Cseh Method, however, did not employ textbooks, relying instead on constant interaction between the teacher and his or her students. Although the method could be, and sometimes was, employed in large auditorium settings, it was naturally limited by the availability of trained and engaging teachers.

Lidia Zamenhof, teaching Esperanto using the Cseh Method, circa 1933. Benson was surely influenced by both the popularity and the limitations of the Cseh Method, which did not depend on explanations in students’ native languages, but required constant interaction with an instructor.

Benson surely observed both the popularity and the limitations of the Cseh Method; he readied himself to fill the void by offering the next best thing to experienced teachers: materials that utilized engaging drawings, in the absence of a live teacher, to teach Esperanto without reliance on explanatory text. When Lidia Zamenhof came to the United States in 1937 to teach Cseh-method Esperanto, Benson must have felt he could only benefit by the interest she stirred in the universal language. Indirectly, Lidia Zamenhof was creating a growing market for Esperanto materials, and Dr. Benson was uniquely positioned to leverage her efforts to his own advantage.

Unfortunately, Lidia was in the United States on a tourist visa and ran afoul of immigration regulations by accepting payment for her Esperanto classes. Because her visa was not renewed, she had little choice but to return to Poland in December of 1938. In September of the following year, Germany invaded Poland, and the Zamenhof family home became part of the Warsaw Ghetto. With the arrival of World War II and Hitler’s persecution of Europe’s Jews, everything changed for Esperanto; its golden age came to an abrupt and tragic end.

War in Europe

Because relatively few people today are aware of Esperanto, let alone speak it, it is easy to underestimate just how influential the language became during the period leading up to World War II. Unfortunately, its growing prominence did not escape the notice of Adolf Hitler. He considered its creator’s Jewish roots to be evidence that Esperanto was part of a nefarious Jewish conspiracy to enslave other cultures by forcing them to abandon their various native languages and instead communicate in a common, second language. Although his reasoning was less than rational, Hitler officially banned the use of the language in Germany in 1935.

Although Esperanto’s creator L. L. Zamenhof did not live long enough to endure the cruel depredations inflicted on Poland’s Jews during World War II, all three of his children suffered greatly at the hands of the Nazis. The oldest, Adam Zamenhof, was arrested on October 1, 1939, and sent to the Polish village of Palmiry where he was later shot. Despite offers of help in escaping, Zamenhof’s daughters Zofia and Lidia remained in confinement in the Warsaw Ghetto until mid-1942; both were ultimately deported from there to the concentration camp at Treblinka where, it is believed, they were immediately murdered. Countless European Esperantists suffered similar fates at the hands of the Nazis.

A photo (c. 1925?) used as the model for the pen-and-ink drawing of Benson in his books. From the Esperanto Museum in Vienna.

There is no record of how these tragic developments affected Dr. Benson back in the United States. By 1940, he had relocated his medical practice and his family from Newark to nearby Irvington, New Jersey. In 1942 he signed a draft registration card, as was required of all American men between the ages of 18 and 65, in the aftermath of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Although he and his second wife Fanny were still married at the time, Benson listed his daughter Flora as his next-of-kin on this registration form (an unusual fact which may or may not reflect on the state of his marriage at the time he filled out the draft form).

While it is presumed that Benson continued to create and refine his Esperanto texts and materials, little evidence remains of his work during the war years. He was undoubtedly disturbed and subdued by world events as conflicts continued to rage around the globe on several fronts. On a personal level, he must have been mortified by the disappearances and deaths of so many of his personal contacts in Europe: those who spoke and promoted Esperanto, those who were Jewish, or both. Certainly he wrote no further glib comments about his intention to live well beyond the age of 100, as he had in earlier correspondence. In fact, by the end of the War and in his late sixties, Benson was already in physical decline.

The war in Europe ended in spring of 1945; Japan signed its final, unconditional surrender a few months later on September 2nd. Benson was able to mark both of these important events and perhaps experience the hope that the world might be restored to peace. Unfortunately, the stresses he may have endured during the course of the war, along with his declining health, took their toll. Dr. Benson died a few weeks later on October 21st, 1945.

Esperanto in the Computer Age

In the years since World War II, interest in Esperanto dwindled, but was never fully extinguished. And, as the Internet came into being, many Esperanto courses and materials, both old and new, became readily available to potential students around the world — causing an incredible resurgence of interest in the language and its ideals. Among those who have pursued an interest in the language, Benson’s Universala Esperanto Metodo enjoys something of a cult status; even beginning Esperantists can’t help but be charmed by its clever drawings and antique sensibilities. Today PDF versions of the book are available on more than one website, free for downloading (a development that might have alarmed Dr. Benson back in 1928!). It remains Dr. Benson’s most enduring work, keeping his name and legacy alive among Esperantists even today and, hopefully, into the language’s future.

Editor’s note: While Dr. Benson did not survive the one hundred and forty years he hoped for (in the excerpt from one of his letters mentioned at the top of the article), Kristy points out that August 24th, 2018 marks his 141st birthday. And his work lives on.