František Omelka (1904-1960)

by Bernhard Struck

The year is 1933. In Germany, the Nazis and Hitler rose to power and it did not take long until the new regime started persecuting Esperantists. This is well documented by Ulrich Lins in his “Dangerous Language. Esperanto under Hitler and Stalin”. Lidia Zamenhof (1904-1942), the youngest daughter of the Zamenhofs, was only one of the many victims – murdered in Treblinka.

Elsewhere, people kept working for the language, its community, and its culture. For instance in Hluk, a rather provincial community in Moravia south west of Brno. The photo below, located at the Esperanto Museum in Svitavy, was most likely taken a bit later but not long after 1933 – most likely around 1935 or 1936. The photo is one of the many snippets that allow a glimpse into the world of Esperanto in the early decades of the twentieth century. Reconstructing life with and around Esperanto, reconstructing local activities in Esperantujo remains a challenge as we know so little about local actors. At times we have newspaper clips from general newspapers, Esperanto journals, bits and pieces of correspondence – or a photo.

Image: František Omelka in Hluk, c. 1936

Let’s start with the photo as this is what we have as a clue and entry point. I have hinted at this here in the context of a broader reflection on the distribution of Esperanto in the Czech lands. The image from around 1935 shows 26 pupils in their early teenage years – 15 girls, eleven boys. And their teacher: František Omelka. The young teenagers are dressed (most of them) in local Moravian costumes. Some are not as the two boys on the left in the front row and to the right. We can guess that a photo at the time was a special occasion. So the boys and girls most certainly dressed up (or were told to do so) for the occasion. As to why some wore traditional dresses and some not, we may not know. Taken in this rather rural location that Hluk was, perhaps some parents sought to show their middle-class rather than rural-agrarian credentials – but this is only a guess. Conspicuous is the Esperanto flag behind the group. Is this how the local and the global or the wider world met in 1935? Via Esperanto – in Hluk? The answer is yes.

Hluk may be an unlikely place to find Esperanto in the 1930s. But Bohemia and Moravia were indeed hotspots of the wider Epsperanto movement from the very early years of the 1900s onward. Clubs were founded in many places east and west of Prague from Pardubice to Kutna Hora. Browsing through the Esperanto journals of the time, like the Esperanto Triumfonta, we find that Omelka founded a local club in Hluk in 1933. Born in 1904, he was not part of the pioneer generation of Zamenhof and others. He was born the year before the first International Congress in Boulogne-sur-Mer in 1905 when the Esperanto movement took off in the decade up to 1914. The First World War disrupted the Esperanto movement but it did not kill it off. Given the prominence of the Czech lands in the period prior to 1914, the region played a key role in its postwar revival. The International Congress held in Prague in 1921 drew a record number of well above 2,000 participants to the newly found Czechoslovakia. New journals like the Esperanto Triumfonta, launched in 1920 by Theo Jung in Cologne, supported this revival.

So Omelka was a “second generation” Esperantist. When exactly he came to Esperanto and how, I have not established yet. He was a teenager when the war ended. Had his father fought in the war? Did the war draw him to Esperanto and the overlaps with the peace movement? We may not know for sure. The answer may also be rather simple as Esperanto was ubiquitous in the region. Whatever drew him to Esperanto, as a teacher he fits a wider and more long-term professional pattern in the region. Many Esperantists in Bohemia and Moravia like Theodor Čejka (1878-1957) and Julie Šupichová (1884-1970) were fellow teachers. As provincial as the photo may appear, we have to think of František Omelka as a highly effective “multiplier” of the language and the movement. Teaching Esperanto, as he did to these children, was one thing. Making use of the language in a provincial town like Hluk was yet another thing. Would any of his young pupils actually use the language? Would any of them venture out into the world as a scientist or engineer or conduct business in Esperanto elsewhere? Most likely not or at least not many of these children. Again, the image can only be a clue or thinking tool but we have to image that – most likely – most of these children may not have ventured too far beyond Hluk or Moravia. We may not know although there were some surprising journeys.

So, who was František Omelka beyond being a local school teacher and Esperantist? What was he trying to achieve with the language and teaching it? What were his aspirations and actions? If we imagine him as an educated, clever, and most likely curious person, Omelka must have understood that Esperanto may not have been the vehicle that would propel his pupils to stellar careers or into a world beyond Hluk. So he did something else. Instead of sending his pupils out into the world, Omelka used Esperanto and its wide-cast network to bring the world to Hluk and these children.

Around 1935-37 Omelka co-organised and co-hosted Esperanto lectures and invited a number of speakers to Hluk or nearby Ostrava. The speakers came from as far as Los Angeles, Estonia, and Nigeria. In July 1937, for instance, the Heroldo de Esperanto, announced: “Joseph R. Scherer denove prelegas en Usono.” Among the touring guests was Joseph R. Scherer (1901-1967). He was born in Switzerland and after his move to the US he became one of the founding members of the Esperanto Club in Los Angeles. As a banker, journalist, and public (Esperanto) speaker he toured the USA and Europe extensively. During earlier travels in 1930-1932 he had visited a total of 41 countries on behalf of the Internacia Centra Komitato. According to La Progreso his lectures in Prague, Brno, Kladno, and Olomouc drew crowds ranging from 200 to 1,300 per evening. Based on his Esperanto globetrotting travels and as the author of the travel account Cirkau la mondon kun la verda stelo (Around the world with the green star, 1933) he certainly was a sensation and he knew how to bring in the crowds with talks on China, Japan, and Indochina. But the tour and its success, hailed across the Esperanto press but also picked up in general newspapers, was also testament to a well-oiled Esperanto network and movement.

A few years later Scherer left the US again and in 1937 his lecture tour included visits to Prague, Dolni, Bousov, and Ostrava – among the countless other stops across Europe. According to the Heroldo de Esperanto he drew big crowds once again to his lectures that were accompanied by photo shows on customs and cultures, on East Asia, Japan, or Bali. Scherer had also worked briefly in Hollywood for movies that used Esperanto and touched upon this in his talks.

Scherer was not the only Esperanto traveller-speaker in those years. Henrik Seppik (1905-1990) from Estonia also came through Czechoslovakia and the Hluk region in the later 1930s. The teacher who toured through Europe, taught Esperanto in several countries including Sweden and Czechoslovakia spoke about Esperanto and about culture and life in his home country. And in 1933 and 1934 another traveller came to Hluk at the invitation of Omelka. This time it was a young African, born in Nigeria in 1906, who had spent time in the US and had learned Esperanto in Bydgoszcz in or around 1932 before going an extensive lecture tour through Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. The themes of his evening lectures were Africa, Nigeria, and cultural understanding. From the snippets I find in newspapers and Esperanto journals of the time, crowds in the 200-300 hundreds per evening attended the talks in Esperanto which were often translated as well. – This man and his story are a blog post for another day. – Scherer, Seppik, and an African Esperantist in and around Hluk. We will never know whether František Omelka’s pupils in the photo ever visited any of these talks. But it is possible that they did. And if so, it was Esperanto that brought Nigeria, Estonia, East Asia, and a bit of Hollywood to the pupils in Hluk.


Ginz, Ota and Stanislav Kamarýt (eds), Ĉeĥoslovaka Antologio. Budapest: Eldonis Literatura 1935.

Kamarýt, Stanislav. Historio de La Esperanto-Movado En Cehoslovakio: Iom Da Historio Kaj Iom Da Rememoroj. 1. eldono. Praha: Ĉeĥa Esperanto-Asocio, 1983.

Lins, Ulrich. Dangerous Language — Esperanto and the Decline of Stalinism. Springer, 2017.

Velitchkova, Ana. ‘Rationalization of Belonging: Transnational Community Endurance’. International Sociology 36, no. 3 (1 May 2021): 419–38.