[CIRCA 23 JANUARY 1946]
HEARTILY APPROVE NATIONWIDE OBSERVANCE FOR DAUNTLESS LYDIA ZAMENHOF.78 HER NOTABLE SERVICES TENACITY MODESTY UNWAVERING DEVOTION FULLY MERIT HIGH TRIBUTE AMERICAN BELIEVERS. DO NOT ADVISE HOWEVER DESIGNATE HER MARTYR.
Miss Zamenhof and her family, who were Jewish, had been arrested and taken to a Nazi concentration camp in 1942. Two years later, in August 1944, Lidia died in the death camp at Treblinka. Commemorative observances were held for her in Bahá'í communities throughout Canada and the United States in October 1946.
Lidia Zamenhof, the daughter of Esperanto creator L.L. Zamnhof, converted to the Bahá'í Faith around 1925. The description of her life in Esther Schor's "Bridge of Words" might be of some surprise to those who are only familiar with her portrayal from official Bahá'í sources.
Lidia Zamenhof, the daughter of Esperanto creator L.L. Zamnhof, converted to the Baha’i Faith around 1925. In late 1937 she went to the United States to teach that religion as well as Esperanto. In December 1938, on the instructions of Shoghi Effendi, she returned to Poland, where she continued to teach and translated many Baha’i writings.
The description of her life in Esther Schor's Bridge of Words might be of some surprise to those who are only familiar with her portrayal from official Baha’i sources.
The Baha’i leadership organized to have Lidia brought to tour and teach in the United States. Their plan was to have her work there, but they neglected her, failing to do proper legal paperwork and poorly accommodating her.
By the time Lidia's visa expired, her extension request was denied because she was found working without a work permit, which her Baha’i handlers had not obtained. Her friends in the United States pleaded with her to not return to Poland, on account of her Jewishness and the expected invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, which would occur in 1939.
Lidia Zamenhof wrote Shoghi Effendi, pleading for guidance and help. In a final desperate plea she even asked him to give her asylum in Haifa, a request that was tersely denied. Shoghi Effendi told her she most return to Poland because they "need" her there to spread the Baha’i Faith there. She returned to Poland and spent her last days recruiting for the Baha'is Faith, ultimately managing to convert one person. Even after her return to Poland, she wrote Shoghi Effendi stating her intention to stay in Poland a few weeks and then go to France. Again, Shoghi Effendi wrote her, telling her to remain in "your native country Poland, where the Faith is still practically unknown." Lidia Zamenhof would eventually be killed by the Nazis.
Later friends of Lidia petitioned the Baha’is to formally declare her a martyr of the Faith. Their request was denied.
The story is related in Bridge of Words, pages 181 to 195 in the 7th and 8th sub-chapters titled "The Priestess" and "Vanishings".
Here is a passage detailing her interactions with Shoghi Effendi:
...the day her visa expired, she learned that her extension had been denied on the ground that she had violated employment regulations. If there had been any doubt, it was now clear: she had been ill-advised and ill-served by her handlers, who had failed to apply for an available waiver for employment laws. Though her friend Ernest Dodge did his utmost for months to plead her case, he was only able to secure an extension until early December.
Advice from friends streamed in: she should go to Cuba, Canada, France, California--anywhere but Poland--and reapply for a visa. Panic was not in her nature, but anxious and fearful, she once again turned to the Guardian for advice. Heller quotes her cable in full:
EXTENSION SOJOURN AMERICAN REFUSED. FRIENDS TRYING TO CHANGE GOVERNMENT'S DECISION. OTHERWISE RETURNING TO POLAND. PLEASE CABLE IF SHOULD ACT OTHERWISE.
His response was decisive:
APPROVE RETURN TO POLAND. DEEP LOVING APPRECIATION. SHOGHI.
Still she waited, hoping that her fate would turn for the better. For a time, an invitation seemed to be forthcoming from Canada, but "the Canadians aren't courageous enough. . . . they 'see difficulties.'" This time, when she requested Shoghi Effendi's permission to meet him in Haifa, she was seeking refuge, not transcendence. He cabled his reply:
REGRET DANGEROUS SITUATION IN PALESTINE NECESSITATES POSTPONEMENT OF PILGRIMAGE.
She wrote, with the humility of a medieval pilgrim, that she knew it was because "such privilege is not often received and that certainly one must deserve it, and second--because of the war in Palestine." Indeed, Haifa was dangerous. Strategically important because of an oil pipeline, Haifa had been the target of attacks by displaced fellahin, by the Irgun, and by the Royal Navy trying to stem the tide of gunrunner and terrorists. Surely Shoghi Effendi knew that to ensure Lidia Zamenhof's safety, he would have to shelter her in his compound, and this he was not prepared to do.
She told her anguished friends that she intended to return to Poland: after all, Shoghi Effendi had advised it, and it was God's will that she rejoin her family in a time of trouble.
From the following section:
Protest was not an option for Lidia Zamenhof when she returned to Warsaw in the winter of 1938. She was reconciled to her fate, and when her faith needed shoring up, she wrote long letters to her Baha’i friends: "If I left America," she wrote, "perhaps it was because God preferred that I work in another land." She was writing bleak allegories: Christmas trees with candles that burn for a moment and go dark; a country called "Nightland," "where the sun had not risen for so long that it had nearly been forgotten." After she wrote to Shoghi Effendi that she planned to stay in Poland a few weeks, then go to France, his secretary replied:
Although your efforts to obtain a permit [in the United States] . . . did not prove successful, you should nevertheless be thankful for the opportunity you have had of undertaking such a long and fruitful journey. He hopes that experiences you have gathered during all these months . . . will now help you to work more effectively to spread the Cause in the various European countries you visit, and particularly in your native country Poland, where the Faith is still practically unknown.
In a postscript, the Guardian himself wrote that he looked forward to meeting her "face to face in the Holy Land" at a time "not far distant." In the meantime, she was to bring Baha’i to the Poles, lecturing, paying calls, and translating sacred Baha’i texts into Polish. After eighteen months of effort, she could count all the Baha’is in Poland on one hand.
The chapter goes on to detail the circumstances of her capture and death, and the last paragraph is as follows:
A few months after the war ended, the Baha’i National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada began to plan a memorial service for Lidia Zamenhof. They consulted Shoghi Effendi: shouldn't she be designated among the martyrs of the Baha’i faith? On January 28th, 1946, the eve of what would have been Lidia's forty-second birthday, Shoghi Effendi cabled his American followers:
HEARITLY APPROVE NATIONWIDE OBSERVANCE FOR DAUNTLESS LYDIA ZAMENHOF. HER NOTABLE SERVICES, TENACITY, MODESTY, UNWAVERING DEVOLUTION FULLY MERIT HIGH TRIBUTE BY AMERICAN BELIEVERS. DO NOT ADVISE, HOWEVER, THAT YOU DESIGNATE HER A MARTYR.
She had intended to give her life for the Baha’i faith, but died as an Esperantist, a Zamenhof, and a Jew.