The young Mr. Zamenhof spoke his father's language, Belarussian, then considered a dialect of Russian, and his mother's Yiddish, a German language of Jewish origin written in the Hebrew alphabet. (Bialystok then had a Yiddish-speaking Jewish majority). He also learned German, French, Hebrew, Latin, and English. Zamenhof was sure that the quarrels of Europe and the world were caused by lack of a common language, and he set out to design one that everyone could understand to serve as a lingua franca for a bold internationalist era. He finished his first "Lingwe uniwersala" in 1878 when he was nineteen, but was too young for anyone to take it seriously. He became an opthamologist.
It wasn't until 1887 that he had raised enough money to self-publish his book "International Language, Foreword and Complete Textbook," under the pseudonym "Doctor Esperanto," or "Doctor Hopeful." He believed that the establishment of a common language would lead to international cooperation and peace. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1910, but did not receive it.
Zamenhof later joined the Zionist movement following a wave of pogroms in the early 1880s, but ultimately left the movement and in 1914 declined membership in a group of Jewish Esperantists, stating:
"I am profoundly convinced that every nationalism offers humanity only the greatest unhappiness... It is true that the nationalism of oppressed peoples -- as a natural self-defensive reaction -- is much more excusable than the nationalism of peoples who oppress; but, if the nationalism of the strong is ignoble, the nationalism of the weak is imprudent; both give birth to and support each other..."
He died in 1917. There are streets named after Zamenhof throughout Europe, in Brazil, and in Tel Aviv.
About three weeks ago I was in the cafe at the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op and sitting there at the table I saw two bookish-looking silver-haired white dudes, chatting amiably. On the table between them sat a tent sign proclaiming: ESPERANTO SPOKEN HERE. Sadly, I was too shy to take a picture.
But, if you wish to pay bizarre acid-nightmare tribute to Mr. Zamenhof, please rent Incubus, the 1965 Esperanto-language horror film starring William Shatner, directed by Leslie Stevens (who created The Outer Limits and with cinematography by 3-time Oscar winner Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy, American Beauty, Road to Perdition).
Incubus is a fairly predictable Hammer-style gothy horror movie, and Shatner emotes in Esperanto pretty much exactly the way he emotes in English (or, presumably, any other language). It's kind of weird. The film was restored in 2001 and you can rent it from Netflix or wherever; I highly recommend it. Come up with your own Esperanto-language drinking games! It really helps.
Though Incubus is often claimed to be "the first Esperanto horror film," it is not the first Esperanto movie. It's either the second or the third, depending on how you reckon it.
The honor of the first Esperanto feature is usually said to belong to 1964's Agonies, a crime story set in the Paris underworld. But an Esperanto-language silent publicity film had been produced before World War II, called "Antaŭen!" (Onwards!).
Google put the Esperanto flag up on their home page in honor of Zamenhof's 150th birthday. The fact that Esperanto hasn't generated world peace should not serve as a mark against Mr. Z. It's the dreaming, ain't that the point?
Courtesy of the Online Esperanto Translator at http://traduku.net/: "Feliĉa naskiĝtago, Mr. Zamenhof, kaj multaj feliĉaj revenoj" -- "Happy Birthday Mr. Zamenhof, and many happy returns."
Information and photo from Wikipedia.