“Bonvenon al Herzberg, la Esperanto-urbo!” is the greeting on the station sign and below it is the translation: “Welcome to Herzberg, the Esperanto city”.
Esperanto as a world language, was there something? The dream that all people speak the same language is probably as old as mankind itself. After all, since the Babylonian confusion of languages there have been many attempts to establish an easy-to-learn language worldwide.
More than 130 years ago, the Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof invented the artificial planned language Esperanto and linked it to a moral claim that wars would soon end as soon as everyone in the world could communicate on an equal footing. Today the dream of world peace is long dead, but Esperanto is alive.
Herzberg am Harz has a long Esperanto tradition
While most non-Esperantists consider the planned language merely an obsession of hobby linguists of retirement age, the German Esperanto Association estimates that several hundred thousand people worldwide and around 2000 people in Germany speak Esperanto regularly and fluently. In Herzberg am Harz, a good 36 kilometers north-east of Göttingen, the city council even voted in 2006 for the name suffix “Esperanto city”.
In order not to be rude to the cosmopolitan language lovers of this town of 13,000, I had rehearsed a few phrases using an Internet translator during the train’s arrival and, to be on the safe side, prepared a cheat sheet that is now being used at Esperanto Square.
“Kiel mi venas al la urbodomo?” (How do I get to the town hall?) I want to know from a young woman with a pram. She gives me an irritated look and disappears into the entrance without a word. So, with my pocket Esperanto, I failed miserably on the first try, but luckily Herzberg’s signage is bilingual. So I quickly find my way to the official residence of Mayor Christopher Wagner (SPD), who perhaps knows more about the origin of the local language preference.
“Kial oni povu paroli Esperanton en Herzberg, Sinjoro Wagner?” (Why should one be able to speak Esperanto in Herzberg, Mr. Wagner?) The mayor is obviously uncomfortable that he can’t get started in fluent Esperanto right away. Unfortunately, due to lack of time, he hasn’t been in office that long, says Wagner. However, he is very pleased that Esperanto is attracting the city’s attention, even the “New York Times” has already reported on it.
Sounds like clever city marketing, right? “Not even close. Herzberg has a long Esperanto tradition,” counters Wagner and recalls the local Esperanto pioneer Joachim Gießner, who came to Herzberg as a station master in the mid-1960s when the town was still a border station with the GDR. At that time, several hundred employees worked for the goods handling, which Esperanto fan Gießner diligently taught.
The library has over 3000 works in Esperanto
“Not everyone in town speaks Esperanto, but it is present everywhere,” says Wagner and recommends a trip to the city library with more than 3,000 Esperanto books. There, librarian Rosi Matwijow is fluent in Esperanto, but when I asked “Kioma hora estas, mi petas?” (What time is it, please?) she tapped her wristwatch vigorously and followed up with a torrent of words that left me somewhat perplexed.
She’ll soon be finishing work, she explains, and if I still want to see the Esperanto section, I’d have to hurry, which is why she immediately pulls the special treasures off the shelves: a Bible and a Koran in Esperanto. Illustrated books such as Struwwelpeter, which is called “Hirthara Petro” in Esperanto, or Max and Moritz, which become “Maks kaj Morits”, are easier to understand for beginners like me.
Only Peter Zilvar, chairman of the Südharz Esperanto Society, has more to offer on the subject of Esperanto in the Esperanto Center, where around 15,000 specialist books from all over the world are stacked. The 72-year-old also teaches Esperanto as an optional subject in local schools and became a staunch Esperantist while still at school when he discovered a polyglot Esperanto phrasebook in his father’s desk.
“With English as a world language, native speakers always have an advantage. It’s fairer with Esperanto, because as a second language, everyone has to learn it first,” says Zilvar, taking a printed beer mat from the shelf. “All 16 basic rules fit on there,” he says enthusiastically, after all you can learn the basics of this simplest language in the world in two to three weekend courses.
Commemorating the inventor Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof
That all nouns end in “-o” and that there is only one article with “la” is something I’ve already understood after studying beer mats. For a farewell drink, I stop by Song Jeong-ok and Harald Schicke, who run an Esperanto café with a ginseng shop in the pedestrian zone.
In the café, the menus in 16 languages are particularly striking. “We’ve had guests from 51 countries,” says Ms. Song. Regular congresses, youth meetings and student exchanges with the Polish twin town of Gora ensure an international audience.
The teacher from South Korea and the naturopath from Hamburg met at an Esperanto congress in Finland and deliberately moved to Herzberg because of the suffix “Esperanto city”. “This is the only place in the world where the Esperanto flag is constantly flying,” says Schicke.
With a green star as the color of hope, it flutters over Zamenhof Square, where the birthday of the Esperanto inventor (he was born on December 15, 1859 in Bialystok, today Poland) is remembered again in mid-December. Incidentally, “Doktoro Esperanto” was his pseudonym, because translated Esperanto means “one who hopes” – and as is well known, hope dies last.
Getting there: Herzberg am Harz can be reached most quickly from Göttingen, 36 kilometers away, by train or by car via the B27 federal highway.