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Heroine of a Polish and Jewish folk legend about a Jewish woman’s relationship with Casimir the Great, King of Poland (r. 1310–1370). According to the chronicle of Jan Długosz (1415–1480), Esterke was Casimir’s mistress who persuaded him to invite Jews to Poland; he also granted them extensive privileges. The story claims that the couple had four children, two boys raised as Christians and two girls raised as Jews. In 1334, Casimir did, in fact, extend privileges that had been first granted by Bolesław of Kalisz.

The earliest written version of the Esterke legend by a Jewish author appears in David Gans’s sixteenth-century chronicle, Tsemaḥ David. Ganz wrote that “Casimir, King of Poland, took as his concubine a Jewish girl named Esther, a maiden whose beauty was unparalleled in the entire country, and she was his wife for many years. The king performed great favors for the Jews for her sake, and she extracted from the king writs of kindness and liberty for the Jews.” Oral versions also note that she lobbied on behalf of her people. Although marital relations between a Jew and a non-Jew are forbidden in Jewish law, they were considered justified here, as in the biblical story of Esther, as essential for the survival of the entire Jewish community. The heroine’s conduct is interpreted as an act of self-sacrifice.

The Esterke legend was transmitted orally, each community adding local color. In Radom, the tale was used to explain the name of the town: the king built a residential area around the house he erected for Esterke and the people there called the quarter rad-dam, “happy about this house.” In Lublin, Esterke was said be buried in the community’s old cemetery. In Kazimierz Dolny, the story claimed that the town’s Great Synagogue itself was a gift from Casimir to Esterke. She was also supposed to have personally embroidered the synagogue’s parokhet (ark curtain), the central motif of which was a fire-breathing monster. Jews in that town interpreted the creature as the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and magical qualities were attributed to its rendering. Both the folk and the written versions are replete with associations from the biblical book of Esther; in addition, the purim-shpil that was customarily presented in Kazimierz related the Esterke story.

In the modern period, the legend inspired many literary works in Yiddish, Polish, and Hebrew; examples include Shemu’el Yosef Agnon’s “Esterkes Haus,” in German and in a Hebrew version. Today, a house in Kazimierz Dolny, supposed to be that of Esterke, remains a tourist attraction.

Suggested Reading

Shmuel Yosef Agnon and Ahron Eliasberg, eds., Das Buch von den polnischen Juden (Berlin, 1916); Haya Bar-Itzhak, Jewish Poland: Legends of Origin (Detroit, 2001); Shemu’el Benet, “Dapim historiyim, 1815–1830,” in Radom, ed. Abraham Samuel Stein, pp. 28–29 ([Tel Aviv], 1961); Chone Shmeruk, “Ha-Maga‘im ben ha-sifrut ha-polanit le-ven sifrut yidish ‘al pi sipur Esterkeh ve-Kazimir ha-Gadol Melekh Polin,” in Sifrut yidish be-Polin: Meḥkarim ve-‘iyunim historiyim, pp. 205–279 (Jerusalem, 1981); Shemu’el L. Shnayderman, “Kaz´imyez´, Kaz´mez´, Kuzmir: Metsi’ut ve-agadah,” in Pinkas Kuzmir, ed. David Sztokfisz, pp. 12–47 (Tel Aviv, 1970), his Yiddish version of the article, “Kazhimyezh, Kazhmezh, Kuzmir: Virklekhkayt un legende,” follows on pp. 48–109; Shemu’el L. Shnayderman, Ven di Vaysl hot geredt yidish (Tel Aviv, 1970).



Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss