Orzeszkowa (Orzeszko), Eliza°

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ORZESZKOWA (Orzeszko ), ELIZA ° (1841–1910), Polish novelist. Born in Grodno, Eliza Orzeszkowa was a member of the Polish landed gentry. A leading prose writer of the late 19th century, she was an advocate of social reform and endeavored to destroy the barriers separating the Poles and the Jews. Of all Polish writers, she took the greatest interest in the Jews, studying their history and even learning Hebrew and Yiddish (in spite of which there are in her writings some serious mistakes, as regards Jewish customs, etc.). An opponent of antisemitism, Orzeszkowa nevertheless attacked Jewish religious separatism and Zionism in the hope that Polish Jewry might ultimately be assimilated into the mainstream of Polish culture and diverted from any identification with the Germans or Russians. These ideas were propagated in her novels and short stories and in the pamphlet "O żydach i kwestyi żydowskiej" ("On the Jews and the Jewish Question," 1882), published after the Warsaw pogrom of December 1881. Her opposition to Zionism was expressed in an article "O nacyonaliżmie żydowskim" (1911; published posthumously in Kuryer Warszawski, 1911).

One of her early novels, Pan Graba ("Mr. Graba," 3 vols., 1872) sympathetically described a Jewish moneylender who amasses his wealth with the sole intention of building schools for the Jews in Jerusalem; while Eli Makower (2 vols., 1875), shows how another Jew assists a decent Polish landowner and works for mutual understanding between their two peoples. Meir Ezofowicz (1878; Eng. trans. 1898), Orzeszkowa's most important Jewish work, describes a young Jew's struggle for enlightenment and human brotherhood in face of Jewish narrowness and fanaticism. This novel is remarkable for its understanding of Orthodox motivation and for its censure of those Jews, who, touched by shallow assimilation, try to imitate some of the customs of the gentiles. In Mirtala (1886), a historical novel set in Rome two years after the destruction of Jerusalem (i.e., 72 c.e.), the novelist portrays the life of the Jewish exiles and their relations with the gentiles. Her short stories–notably "Silny Samson" ("The Strong Samson," 1878); "Gedali" (1884), and Rotszyldówna ("The Rothschild Girl," written before 1891, publ. 1921) – contain sympathetic descriptions of poverty-stricken Jews. In 1905 Orzeszkowa edited an anthology of 16 short stories about Jews by ten Polish writers, entitled Z jednego strumienia ("From One Source").


I. Butkiewiczówna, Powieści nowele żydowskie Elizy Orzeszkowej (1937), incl. bibl.

[Yehuda Arye Klausner]