Postcard with scenes of Grodno (now Hrodna, Belarus), home of the nineteenth-century Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa (portrait, center), author of Meir Ezofowicz and other books with sympathetic portrayals of Jews, ca. 1915. Photograph by L. M. Gelgor. (YIVO)

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Ezofowicz Family

Sixteenth-century Jewish financiers living in Poland. Three Ezofowicz (or Józefowicz) brothers—Jan Abraham (d. 1519), Michal (d. 1529?), and Ajzyk (Isaac; dates unknown)—were among a number of prominent Jews in medieval and early modern Poland who managed the finances of Polish monarchs.

Jan Abraham Ezofowicz was initially a merchant and leaseholder for tolls in the Kiev region of Poland–Lithuania; he worked in partnership with his brothers. After the Tatars destroyed Kiev in 1482, he moved to Lithuania, converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1488, and became an official for the duke of Lithuania, again administering towns and tolls. As a Christian, Jan Abraham was not affected by King Alexander’s decree that expelled Jews from the Duchy of Lithuania in 1495. From 1495 to 1505, he served as a starosta (governor) of the town of Smoleńsk. In 1504, for his service to the king and support during the wars with Muscovy, Jan Abraham was rewarded with a land grant in the region of Wilno and was ennobled in 1507, receiving the “Leliwa” coat of arms. After Alexander’s death, Jan Abraham remained a trusted servant of the Polish monarch Sigismund I. In 1509, he was appointed head of the royal treasury and was responsible for reforming the institution.

Until his death, Jan Abraham maintained close business and personal relations with Michal and Isaac, who remained Jewish. They were present, along with his wife Hanna Wasilewna and two priests, when Jan Abraham signed his will in 1519. Jan Abraham’s children eventually accepted Catholicism. His daughter Maryna is buried within a Catholic church in Opatów. The wealth that Jan Abraham Ezofowicz amassed was dissipated by his sons, however, and ended in the hands of Jerzy Radziwiłł.

Michal and Ajzyk Ezofowicz held a partnership until 1519. As a royal factor and banker for King Zygmunt I, Michal administered the royal monopoly on salt production and controlled toll collection in the Brest Litovsk region. In 1514 he was asked to be head of Lithuanian Jews and was responsible for collecting their taxes, but he seems to have given up this post shortly after his appointment. Like Jan Abraham, Michal amassed both wealth and influence through his service to the monarch, and on 10 April 1525, he was ennobled at a ceremony in Kraków, and was granted the same coat of arms as his brother. The privileges of nobility extended to his offspring but not to his brother Ajzyk. In 1605, the survivors of the prominent Jewish leaseholder Yitsḥak Mikhelewicz, who was murdered by the nobleman Ivan Soltan and was presumably a descendant of Michal, invoked the ennoblement act granted to Michal, turning the trial into a case of murder of a nobleman who happened to be a Jew. The trial records present Mikhelevich as a model of aristocratic values, stating that “the deceased Yitsḥak Mikhelevich, a Jew, was an honest nobleman, who followed nobleman’s life, and was not an innkeeper, a craftsman, or a merchant, but was engaged and lived according to aristocratic freedoms.” Michal Ezofowicz and his descendants are the only examples on record of Polish Jews who achieved noble status without conversion. They are the subject of Eliza Orzeszkowa’s novel Meir Ezofowicz.

Suggested Reading

Akty Izdavaemye Vilenskoiu Kommisieiu Dlia Razbora Drevnikh Aktov, vol. 28, Akty o Evreiakh, pp. 60–72 (Vilna, 1901); Sergei Aleksandrovich Bershadskii, Russko-Evreiskii arkhiv, vol. 1, pp. 125–126 (St. Petersburg, 1882); Sergei Aleksandrovich Bershadskii, Avram Ezofovich Rebichkovich, podskarbii zemskii, chlen Rady Velikago Kniazhestva Litovskago: Otryvok iz istorii vnutrennikh otnoshenii Litvy v nachale XVI veka (Kiev, 1888); Mordekhai Nadav, “Ma‘ase alimut ha-dadiyim ben yehudim le-lo-yehudim be-Lita lifne 1648,” Gal-Ed 7–8 (1985): 41–56; Władysław Pociecha, “Ezofowicz Rabinkowicz . . . Jan Abraham” and “Ezofowicz Rabinkowicz . . . Michel,” in Polski słownik biograficzny, vol. 6, pp. 328–333 (Kraków, 1948).