Usona Esperantisto № 2018:3 (maj-jun)

Dr. William Sol Benson, America’s Original Esperantist

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The pen-and-ink drawing of Dr. Benson that appears in his publications.

“A great unquenchable desire, a strong will and concentration of purpose will accomplish anything. If you have not got it, cultivate it. Start now. My object in life is ESPERANTO, nothing else matters, and I am going to climb and push my understanding forward until it reaches the summit.”
— Dr. William Sol Benson, 1928

Introduction

Most Esperantists have some degree of familiarity with Dr. Benson’s master work, the culminating edition of his Universala Esperanto Metodo. Published in 1932, this remarkable book contains a fully illustrated Esperanto dictionary, more than two hundred stories, and a pronunciation key referencing a highly diverse group of more than forty world languages. But certainly its most notable feature is its collection of more than 10,000 illustrative drawings. Through them, Dr. Benson sought to teach Esperanto to all potential students, regardless of the overwhelming number of native languages spoken in their ranks. His eventual goal was to create a method to teach Esperanto through the universal language of pictures rather than the comparatively limited written word — a goal that, if accomplished, would make his book uniquely useful to Esperanto teachers and students around the world.

But although many Esperantists, even today, are familiar with Dr. Benson’s Universala Esperanto Metodo, little is remembered about the man himself. As of June 2018, for example, his Wikipedia entry comprises just a handful of sentences, most focusing on his work in the Esperanto movement. Even his own publications, in their various incarnations, contain few clues about his life. Aside from a stark pen-and-ink drawing of Dr. Benson, they contain no personal information about the author. Despite this biographical void, Dr. Benson was certainly one of the earliest and arguably most influential of Esperanto’s advocates in America.

Early life in Kiev

We do know that the man who would become Dr. Benson was born in Kiev, Ukraine, then part of the Russian Empire. He was apparently the first son born to Samuel Chaskalevich (b. 1848) and his wife, Chaie Minkowsky. Although he consistently recorded his birthday as August 24, the exact year of his birth is less certain. In earlier documents, he reported fairly consistently that 1877 was his birth year. Later documents, however, suggest that as he aged, like many of us, he became a bit less consistent in reporting his birthdate — the earlier 1877 date is probably, therefore, the most accurate.

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The first page of the Unua Parto of Universala Esperanto-Metodo.

We know few specifics about the life led in Russia by the Chaskalevich Family in the last decades of the 19th Century; however, their American descendants have related a family story purporting that Benson’s father Samuel Chaskalevich was a prominent tailor who worked on contract for the Czar, designing uniforms for the Russian military.1 How Samuel could have accomplished this work from Moscow while raising a family — one that eventually consisted of at least five children — in Kiev is not addressed in the family legend. It is interesting to note, however, that an illustration on the very first page of the Unua Parto of Universala Esperanto Metodo consists of three panels that introduce the nouns reĝo (meaning “king,” or “czar”), tajloro (“tailor”), and soldato (“soldier”), followed by panels that employ the three figures to introduce the verb estas. This could, of course, be mere coincidence; however, it’s also possible that these drawings reflect the influence of Dr. Benson’s earliest memories.

We can surmise with a bit more certainty that Dr. Benson’s early life in Ukraine probably had a great deal in common with the life led a generation earlier by Esperanto’s creator, the young Dr. L. L. Zamenhof, in nearby Poland. As young men, both were immersed in a linguistic melting pot of sorts. Like the Zamenhof Family, the Chaskaleviches were “Russian” Jews who spoke Yiddish at home. In Kiev, they were certainly surrounded by speakers of Russian as well as a smaller number of speakers of Ukranian — a language that struggled to maintain its own identity against the inundating tide of the Russian language (and despite being officially banned in the Russian Empire at that time). Based on the fact that communicating in America, once they arrived, did not appear to be an insurmountable challenge for the Chaskalevich children, there was probably some level of exposure to English as well.

Also, like Dr. Zamenhof, Benson too was destined to put aside his dreams of peace through a common second language in favor of a more practical medical career. We may never know if, as a boy, Dr. Benson ever had the chance to meet or correspond with Dr. Zamenhof; however, it has been reported that Benson first learned Esperanto as early as its second year of existence.2 Dr. Benson would have been just eleven years old at that time and still living in Kiev, less than 400 miles from the Zamenhofs’ home in Bialystok, Poland. Benson’s early experiences in his homeland clearly sparked a passion for Esperanto that endured throughout his life.

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William Benson (at right) with brother Ruben and Father Samuel Chaskalevich, c. 1905?

Coming to America

During the earliest years of the 20th Century it was the custom of many immigrant families to send their oldest son to America, both to establish himself in the new country and to pave the way for the eventual arrival of additional family members. Such seems to have been the case in the Chaskalevich Family. Again there is some confusion about the exact date of this milestone, but it’s fairly certain that Sol Chaskalevich (Benson’s probable birth name) was still a teenager when he arrived at the Port of Baltimore. It was there that he was christened “William Benson,” an Americanized name that he embraced from that point forward.3 We don’t know if there were any relatives or family friends to meet him on his arrival in the new country, but we do know that he immediately gravitated to New York City where he established himself for the next two decades.

As a young, single man newly arrived in a new country, young William Benson undoubtedly set about establishing some sort of household, education, and career for himself. Back home in Kiev, however, conditions were becoming increasingly chaotic as political and social unrest swept through the Russian Empire. By 1904, it appears that Benson’s brother Rueben and at least one of his sisters had immigrated to America, but both of his parents and his remaining sister(s) were still in Kiev during the pogrom of 1905. That October, a mob took to the streets, proclaiming that, “All Russia’s troubles stemmed from Jews and Socialists.” In addition to more than ten million rubles’ worth of property damage, approximately 100 Jews were massacred and at least 300 more were seriously injured.4 The remaining Chaskalevich Family fled Kiev very soon afterward, arriving in New York Harbor on April 4, 1906.

Within just a few months of his parents’ arrival, William Sol Benson applied for naturalization. He’d been in the United States more than the five years required to apply, and he may have felt that establishing himself as an American citizen would help him ease the way for his remaining family members as they began their adjustment to life in New York City. On his naturalization application documents, Benson, then in his late twenties, listed his occupation as “photographer.”

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Chaskalevich Siblings (including William Sol Benson, second from right), c. 1905?.

The power of images

Away from the strife of his homeland, William Benson had been free to explore entirely new opportunities in his adopted country, and photography seems to have caught his attention almost immediately. It was an ideal time to develop a career in that emerging field. Eastman Kodak’s inexpensive Brownie camera had been introduced at the turn of the century, putting cameras into the hands of amateur photography enthusiasts on a large scale for the first time ever. The first commercially available color film became available in 1907, and photography was being newly used to document social conditions (rather than being limited to stilted studio settings, as was often the case prior to the arrival of the 20th century). The publication in 1890 of Jacob Riis’s How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York caused a sensation — not just in New York City, but across the country — as its photographs exposed the stark reality of New York tenement squalor for the first time and triggered major social reforms. Similarly, renowned photographer Lewis Hine was using his camera to document arriving immigrants at Ellis Island at the same time that Benson’s various family members were immigrating — part of a virtual tide of eastern European emigrants that swept in during the first decade of the 20th century. Photography wasn’t just a fad, Benson surely understood, but a powerful means of education and social reform. Over the next ten years Benson left a handful of documents listing his occupation variously as “photographer,” “manufacturer of photo plates,” and “camera maker.” It was undoubtedly during this period that Benson began to associate the idea of images as a nascent educational tool with his earlier passion for Esperanto.

It was also during this time that Benson established a family of his own. He married Mary Reisner5 (also a native of Kiev), on March 19, 1908 in Manhattan. Mary gave birth to their only child, Flora Benson, in New York City two years later on March 12, 1910. The young family was living on East 10th Street in Manhattan at the time they celebrated Flora’s first birthday in 1911; two weeks later the entire country was horrified when New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire, resulting in the deaths of 146 garment workers, many of them eastern European Jewish immigrants with backgrounds very similar to Benson’s. The fire, the deadliest industrial accident in New York history, occurred less than a mile from the Benson home.

A passion for Esperanto

Luckily, William Benson had not followed his father into a career as a tailor or endured the often inhumane treatment of workers in New York’s garment district. His early interest in photography evidently helped him to instead finance an education in medicine. He was undoubtedly in school during the years just after his marriage, graduating from the Osteopathic School of Philadelphia in 1917. This milestone occurred at the same year that his early hero, Dr. L.L. Zamenhof, passed away in Poland — an event that perhaps re-energized Benson’s nearly life-long interest in Esperanto. As Dr. Benson relocated his family to Newark, New Jersey, and set about establishing a medical practice there, he was concurrently working to create the materials that would comprise his first Esperanto text books. The earliest of these, Practical Esperanto, was published in 1925.

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Graduation photo from Philadelphia Osteopathy School, c. 1917.

Practical Esperanto was a small, paperbound book, approximately five by seven inches, and consisted of about 80 pages. Unlike Benson’s later works, it was clearly aimed solely at English speakers: all explanatory text was in English; even the book’s title was in English. It was also a more traditional language primer in that it was largely text-based. And although Practical Esperanto contained a vast number of small illustrations, it was not always immediately evident how these drawings related to the accompanying text. Their inclusion at this stage of Benson’s writing seemed to be merely experimental.

Despite the somewhat random nature of its illustrations, Practical Esperanto was the first text in which Benson published a number of illustrated tables that would become one the hallmarks of his work in subsequent years. These tables usually contained a dozen drawings with an explanatory header at the top. They most often served to illustrate Esperanto prefixes or suffixes. In Practical Esperanto, the headers were written in English, but in his later publications these tables were reprinted with Esperanto headers. For example, the header for the table illustrating the suffix in, as it appeared in Practical Esperanto, read “Suffix ‘IN’ indicates FEMININE.” In later publications, Benson clearly trusted his readers (and his method) enough to believe that the Esperanto header “La uzado de la sufikso ‘IN’” could be readily understood by anyone studying the drawings that appeared beneath it.

Unfortunately, the artist who created the illustrations is unknown; he or she went uncredited in all of Benson’s publications. Although Benson himself probably wasn’t the artist, he almost certainly served as the model for several of the panels. The man featured in the illustrations for the Numeraloj grid, for example, is clearly Benson, an identification made all but certain by the presence of the same fashionable pince-nez glasses and the diminutive mustache that Benson is seen to sport in his author photo. It was also during this time that Benson’s wife Mary passed away. He married his second wife Fannie Galinkin (the widow of Elias Cowan), and adopted her son Bernard (b. 1903), whom he helped to establish a career as a dentist.

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An illustration from Universala Esperanto-Metodo in which Benson himself was clearly the model.

[To be continued in our next issue —Ed.]

Note: The photos are from the collection of Benson descendant Eileen Kemp, used with permission.

  1. As reported by Eileen Kirschner Kemp (granddaughter of Benson’s sister Bertha Farbman) in a phone interview in 2011. 

  2. American Esperantist Magazine. Obituary published 1946. 

  3. Name information reported by Eileen Kirschner Kemp (granddaughter of Benson’s sister Bertha Farbman) in a phone interview in 2011. 

  4. William C. Fuller, The Foe Within: Fantasies of Treason and the End of Imperial Russia, 2006. 

  5. Mary’s maiden name was also reported as “Reisur” and “Reiner” in various historical vital records.