Re/Writing Esther

Maria Makowiecka, Bergen Community College

The theme of Esther reappears in Polish literature at the height of popularity of the nineteenth-century historical novel. Polish Esther, a character based on the legendary concubine of King Casimir the Great, functions as an object of political debate as she forges a political alliance for the benefit of her people, much as did the biblical Queen Esther.

As a religious and cultural Other, she negotiates Polish and Jewish cultures. This paper will explore the various identities invented for Esther and her role in the re/invention of Polish identity based on Aleksander F. Bronikowski's King Casimir and Esther (1828), Feliks A. G. Bernatowicz's Nalecz (1828), and Jozef Ignacy Kraszewski's The King of Peasants (1881). These stories are set in the fourteenth century; however, they reflect the nineteenth-century preoccupation with Polish-Jewish relations in Poland. In Bronikowski's text, the beautiful Esther is a mere instrument in the hands of her grandfather. Her beauty shields her from the worst animosity and prejudice. Bronikowski's Esther succumbs to Casimir's advances for the sole purpose of carrying out her mission. In this account she is a deceitful Jewess, a femme fatale, who uses seduction to gain power and to erode the integrity of Polish culture. The Jewish deceit provides a background for Polish virtue. In Bernatowicz's novel, Esther is temporarily redeemed by her beauty and devotion to the King. Her transgression inevitably proves that it is impossible to function in two cultures equally--she is a stranger in both. Kraszewski's Esther approaches Casimir independently and she starts an intimate relationship with him because it is her wish. Interestingly, she has been deprived of some of the outer markings of Jewishness, yet she remains an Other. La belle juive is mostly adored for being oriental, sensual and accessible. Esther frequently reads to him from "the books of the East." Although the reader is not privy to the content of this cultural transmission, the King is receptive to it and enjoys these sessions greatly. Esther is a source of information for him and a source of change. Whereas King Casimir and Esther and Nalecz reify a pathological fear of Esther's difference and her influence, The King of Peasants presents Esther as a desired agent of change. The various renderings of the theme of Esther reflect attempts at rewriting the history of the long coexistence of the two cultures and a contribution to the representation of female otherness in nineteenth-century Polish literature.