King Kazimierz the Great established a city in his name on February 17, 1335, that grew into one of Poland?s largest Jewish enclaves.
The question is why he created a separate municipality for Jews ? and that?s where the legends arise.
One is that the king had a Jewish lover named Esterka. Since Wawel Castle, where he lived, is close to Kazimierz, the legend says that he founded it so Esterka would be near him.
Whether the legend is true is anyone?s guess. But what is indisputable is that Kazimierz the Great not only set aside a community for Jews, but also gave Jews in Krakow and throughout Poland several rights and privileges.
Jan Dlugosz, a chronicler of the 15th Century, believed the Esterka story.
Dlugosz wrote that after Kazimierz discovered his wife Rokiczana had scabies, he took Esterka as his mistress.
??He had two sons with her, Niemierza and Pełka,? Dlugosz wrote. The king love Esterka so much that he agreed to her request for a royal document that ??granted unusual privileges and freedoms to all the Jews who lived in the Polish Kingdom.?
One of the reasons that many people think this story is a legend is that it is similar to the Biblical account of Esther. To start with, both heroines had the same name.
Both mesmerize kings with their beauty and become their mates. The Biblical Esther became the wife of Ahasuerus, the king of Persia.
And in both stories, the kings grant rights and privileges to their Jewish minorities.
Legend or not, the story of Kazimierz and Esterka has great symbolic value when it comes to the relationship between Poles and Jews.
The king validates and legalizes the presence of the minority in the country. Esterka is the link between the ruler and her people. Most important of all, she becomes the guarantor of their rights as Polish citizens.
The legend is so compelling that many Jewish writers have spun romantic tales about it.
But part of the legend carries negative symbolism, from a Jewish perspective: Kazimierz and Esterka are not equals because she is his mistress, not his wife. Their relationship symbolizes the subordinate position in Polish society that Jews hold vis-à-vis non-Jews.
It is unclear where Esterka is supposed to have come from before settling in Kazimierz.
Some say she came from one of the small towns in central or southern Poland, such as Radom, Sandomierz, Skawina, Opoczno or Kazimierz Dolny, which was also named after the king.
Others say that since the king established a Jewish enclave close to Krakow, she must have been from Krakow
Conventional wisdom is that a building at ul. 46 Krakowska was her family?s home. In fact, it is called The House of Esterka. Another slice of the Esterka legend is that the king built castles in Kazimierz Dolny and Lobzow for his lover. Lobzow was a village at the time but is now part of Krakow. Both of the castles were built in the mid-14th Century and are open to the tourists.
The legend of Kazimierz and Esterka has a dark side, however. It says that one day she learned that the king had been unfaithful to her. Crushed, she committed suicide by jumping out a window of the castle in Lobzow. Some people say Esterka is resting today in one of Krakow?s burial mounds. Whether or not that is true, Kazimierz has a street named for her ? Ulica Esterki. It is the only street in the district named for someone who may not have been real and also the only street named for a woman.