In the ancient Jewish quarter of the Kazimir district in Krakow, Poland, you’ll find a street called Ulica Estery. It’s named after Queen Esterke, as she was referred to in Yiddish. Like Purim’s Queen Esther, this 14th century Jewess was married to a gentile king — Casimir III — and used her position of power to save Polish Jews from persecution.
About 200 years after Queen Esterke lived, Rabbi Dovid Ganz (a student of both the Rema and the Maharal) authored a book titled Tzemach Dovid, which is the first Jewish documentary evidence of Queen Esterke’s existence. He writes that there was a Jewish Queen Esther whose husband, Casimir, granted the Jews of Poland special liberties as a result of her influence.
A Jew in the Palace
King Casimir was also likened to King Achashveirosh. An anti-Semitic priest, Przeslaw Mojecki, who was obviously familiar with the Purim story, writes in his book Jewish Cruelties (published in 1589): “We know from chronicles that our Polish Asswrus [Achashveirosh], Casimir the Great, took Esther in place of his own wife, the despised Adleida, and begat with her two sons — Niemira and Pefka — and daughters as well, and, persuaded by Esther, he permitted to bring them up as Jews.” The priest goes on to describe Esther as being conniving and having manipulated King Casimir to promulgate what Mojecki considers a hateful law.
The linking of Esterke’s life with Purim’s Queen Esther is also found in a play called “Estherke,” by Herschel Eppelberg, which was first performed in Warsaw in 1890. The play contains many parallels to the Megillah, including a fast called by Queen Esterke to assure the success of her appeal to King Casimir when she tries to plead for the safety of her people. The attempts of an evil priest to block the granting of rights to the Jews is reminiscent of Haman’s actions centuries earlier.
How did the Jewish Esterke end up becoming a queen in a country renowned for its anti-Semitism?
According to legend, Esterke was the beautiful daughter of a tailor named Yeruchom, who lived in Opoczno, Poland. One day, King Casimir the Great — the third and last king of the House of Piast (1310–1370) — was pursuing a gazelle in a forest in Solib. On his hunt, he chanced upon a beast threatening a beautiful girl collecting herbs. The king slayed the beast, saving Esterke’s life. He was so impressed by the young woman’s intelligence and natural nobility that he decided to take her as a wife.
Esterke was brought to King Casimir’s castle in the city of Radom, a name that is also associated with the queen. As per the king’s instructions, the palace was renovated and expanded, and beautiful gardens were planted. The king would frequently visit Queen Esterke there and the people nicknamed the place “Rad-dam” or the Polish equivalent of “Happy about this house” because of the king’s cheerful mood while in the castle. The palace, at Number 5 and 6 Rynek Street, became known as “Esther’s House” and today houses Radom’s Modern Art Museum.
Polish King, Jewish Citizens
At least two centuries before Esterke’s birth, Jews began to settle in Poland. Indeed, there’s even a pun about “Polin” (the Hebrew name for Poland): A group of exiled Jews crossed the Polish border and heard a Divine voice call out, “Poh Lin,” or “Rest here.”
The Polish relationship with the Jews was, at first, a relatively hospitable one. On August 16, 1264, Prince Boleslav, also known as Boleslav the Just, (the grandfather of King Casimir III, through Casimir’s mother, Jadwiga) made a declaration defining the rights of the Jews. With the consent of dignitaries of the state, Boleslav promulgated a charter of privileges that guaranteed the Jews economic rights, and protected their lives, property, and synagogues.
The charter read: “The deeds of man, when unconfirmed by the voice of witnesses or by written documents, are bound to pass away swiftly and disappear from memory. Because of this, we, Boleslav, Prince of Great Poland, make it known to our contemporaries as well as our descendants, to whom this writing shall come down, that the Jews, who have established themselves over the length and breadth of our country, have received from us the following statutes and privileges.”
The king encouraged Jewish immigration as beneficial to Poland’s economy.
King Casimir III confirmed the privileges and expanded them on October 9, 1334. He also encouraged the immigration of Jews from Germany who, he believed, would be beneficial to Poland’s economy. Under the penalty of death, King Casimir forbade the kidnapping of Jewish children in order to baptize them, and severely punished anyone who desecrated any of the Jewish cemeteries.
In 1347, the Jews were accused of having murdered a child who was found in a forest not far from Krakow. The king conducted a public investigation and through his chancellor, Jacob of Melchtin, and the priest Prandola (who was also favorably disposed towards the Jews), the innocence of the Jewish people was proven. Thereafter, King Casimir promulgated an edict refuting the blood libel as well as defining the punishment for a charge not substantiated by proofs.
A year later, King Casimir once again protected the Jewish people, this time from attacks by anti-Semitic mobs who falsely accused the Jews of poisoning the wells after an outbreak of the Black Plague.
During Esterke’s reign, as the legends relate, she persuaded the king to invite more Jews to settle in the country. Historians claim that between 1348 and 1370, the sharp increase in the number of Jews helped establish the Jewish communities in Krakow, Lvov (Lemberg), Kalicz, Pozen, Gniezno, Lublin, and Plock.
Pieces of a Puzzle
Although there are various historical documents about Esterke, each one only captures a small fragment of the past, a mere hint to who this Jewess truly was.
For her book about Polish Jewry, Haya Bar-Itzhak interviewed a man named Meyer Kirschenblatt, who tells the story of when he was a young boy growing up in the town of Opatow. He remembers being shown a tree in the Jewish quarter of Kazimir under which King Casimir supposedly entertained Esterke. The branches of the tree — which still stood even after so many centuries had passed — were very large. Each branch, he claimed, was as thick as a regular tree, and had to be supported.
As for Esterke’s beauty, the famous Nobel Prize laureate Shmuel Yitzchak Agnon wrote that “her face was as white as snow, her eyes were like the sun in the month of Ziv (Iyar) ... There was no lass as beautiful as Esther in all of Poland.”
Agnon claims that Casimir’s other three wives were terrified of the king’s love for Esterke. In their jealousy, they would scratch evil words on the walls of Esterke’s house with their fingernails. But Esterke wasn’t afraid because a kosher mezuzah guarded the entrance to her house. And it was through this doorway that the king would enter.
Other legends describe additional castles or fortresses built for Esterke in Lobzow and Bochotnica. One legend has King Casimir outliving Queen Esterke and mourning her beautiful eyes and peering out the window at her grave. Other legends have Esterke killed in a pogrom after the king passed away. According to Polish tradition, she was buried in a Lobzow garden, which was a favorite residence of the king.
Lublin's Jews claimed that Queen Esterke is buried in their old cemetery.
The Lublin Jewish community, however, claims that Queen Esterke was buried in their old cemetery and that she had a tombstone there with her name engraved on it. This assertion is backed up, interestingly enough, by a non-Jewish writer named Klems Junosza. As he relates in his book, “One can even come across a stone there [in Lublin’s cemetery] which has, no more and no less… only one name inscribed on it. And do you know sir what name is it? Esther. And so you know, she was a Jewess of simple station... a tailor’s daughter. But later she became a Jewish queen.”
Stitching A Legacy
During his reign, King Casimir built and established the town of Kazimir (once on the outskirts of Krakow, now an integral part of the city proper) and named the district after himself. He also ordered the construction of a large synagogue for Esterke there.
According to legend, when the king was occupied with affairs of state, or at war with his enemies, Queen Esterke would embroider a paroches (curtain) for the Holy Ark of the synagogue. (During the Middle Ages, it was common for women to spend their leisure hours embroidering decorations for use in ecclesiastical buildings.) The central motif of the paroches was a fire-breathing serpent, which was believed to symbolize the snake that convinced Chava to eat from the Tree of Knowledge in Gan Eden.
Over time, special powers were attributed to the hand-stitched paroches. It was hung in the shul only on Jewish Festivals, when it was guarded day and night by the chevra kadisha. It survived many wars and fires, even the one that eventually destroyed the wooden shul (replaced later by a brick synagogue in the early 18th century).
The legend of Esterke and her beautiful paroches eventually became a Polish tourist attraction. Samuel L. Schneiderman, a prominent journalist who was born in Kazimir in 1906 and passed away at the age of 90, reported that in his time there were two famous tour guides, both named Yankele, who regaled audiences with stories about Esterke.
According to the first — Yankel Scwartzman — the king brought Spanish goldsmiths to make the gold thread with which the queen embroidered the paroches. Yankel Goldfarb, the second guide, would spice his tales with descriptions of the cholent and gefilte fish that Queen Esterke would prepare for the king.
The regal paroches also made a guest appearance every year at the local Purim spiel about Queen Esterke and King Casimir, put on by the local Kazimir tailor.
Fact or Folklore?
According to one historian, the many non-Jewish Polish anti-Semitic works discussing Queen Esterke give proof that she actually existed. Other historians, however, dispute that King Casimir actually had a Jewish wife. They claim the dearth of contemporary documentation is really just an indication that she was a figment of the imagination of storytellers.
According to one historian, Polish anti-Semitic works discussing Queen Esterke proove her existence.
The late Chone Shmeruk, the world’s foremost expert on Yiddish literature and folklore, did a great deal of research on this topic and asserts that Queen Esterke did indeed exist. In his book, The Esterke Story in Yiddish and Polish Literature, he lists numerous sources — from Polish, German, and Yiddish documents — to back his claim. He also writes, “My purpose is not to examine the authenticity of this tradition, which is established for our purposes by virtue of its currency in both Polish and Yiddish literature.” In other words, he posits that the fact that stories about Esterke exist in two different literatures, which have no association with each other, is indicative of its veracity.
The question of Queen Esterke’s existence may also be answered by rereading the introduction to Prince Boleslav’s charter: “The deeds of man, when unconfirmed by the voice of witnesses or by written documents, are bound to pass away swiftly and disappear from memory.” But the legends now serve in place of the voices of witnesses, and the deeds of the Polish Achashveirosh and Queen Esterke live on in memory.
The article originally appeared in Mishpacha magazine.