In the mid-19th century, Salomea Palińska was the most celebrated stage actress in Warsaw, but the arrival of Helena Modjeska (Modrzejewska) resulted in the twilight of her great career.
Salomea Palińska was born in 1831 in Warsaw, as Sara Ryfka Adelschon, a daughter of Dawid and Ajdla née Rupik from Płock. She spent her youth in Warsaw, where she and her immediate family embraced the Roman Catholic faith in 1844 – that time she also changed her surname from Adelschon to Palińska, after her stepfather, an affluent merchant whose business connections streched as far west as London (where he temporarily lived). Her godfather was the Russian viceroy of the Kingdom of Poland Ivan Paskevich – it was an old Polish custom that kings (or thier direct representatives, as in this case) sponsored neophyte baptisms. In the subsequent years of her life, Palińska’s Jewishness became an open secret in Warsaw and she herself tried to hide her Jewish roots for fear of Christian prejudices and potential stigmatization (for example, she used fake documents of birth in order to marry a Catholic, that lacks information about her conversion and, what is more, the place of birth – a town in Lithuania – was false). The story of her life was not different in this respect from biographies of many other European actresses of Jewish origin, including the iconic Sarah Bernhardt.
We do not know, when exactly Salomea Palińska started to think about professional acting, but already as a 13-year-old girl she was a pupil of the famous Warsaw actress Leontyna Halpert née Żuczkowska, wife of the director of the Warsaw Governmental Theatres Borys (himself, a Christian of Jewish birth). Palińska made her debut in Warsaw, in 1850, acting as Celina in the comedy Lwy i lwice (lit. Lions and lionesses) by Stanisław Bogusławski. Although, she initially got a job at the Warsaw Theatre, she was soon forced to leave the city for unknown reasons (probably, she was in conflict with the Theatre administration) and moved to Vilnius. Palińska worked there until 1855 when she manager to return to Warsaw as an official successor of the retired Leontyna Halpert, taking over her leading dramatic roles. Her acting in ‘serious’ plays significantly added to her popularity with the Warsaw audience. The Warsaw critic Władysław Bogusławski (son of Stanisław and grandson of Wojciech, the ‘father’ of Polish national theatre) even called her ‘the last [real] incarnation of the tragic power on our stage’. Among the most celebrated of her performances was the title role of Adrianne Lecouvreur in the popular French play by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé as well as the role of Desdemona in Othello by Shakespeare, acting beside the American actor Ira Aldridge as Othello (who was on tour in Poland and Russia). This famous performance, well-remembered in Polish theatre historiography, became the subject of the play Dying Othello by Maciej Karpiński (premiere at Teatr Wybrzeże, 2002). Note that Salomea Palińska was not only an actress but also a translator of some German and French dramas that were played in Warsaw.
Palińska’s career started to wane when Helena Modjeska (Modrzejewska) joined the Warsaw theatrical team in 1868. The Cracow actress was actually afraid of her future on the Warsaw stage, however, the reason was not Palińska’s talent (although Modjeska appreciated her rival’s skills, she was quite convinced about her own superiority) but the influence and connections of her husband, the journalist Józef Kenig, the well-known ‘potentate of public opinion’ with a keen interest in theatrical criticism. However, Kenig proved to be objective in his widely read reviews, impartially recognizing Modjeska’s artistic skills and thus significantly contributing to her success and elevation to the secure status of the leading star in Warsaw and Poland. Palińska acted together with Modjeska at least one time in the dramatic cantata ‘Widma’ (‘Phantoms’, based on some fragments of the poetic drama Dziady by Adam Mickiewicz), but she generally tended to refrain from the stage after 1868, also due to her serious health problems. Her last performance was the title role in Séraphine by Victorien Sardou in September 1873. She died next month, leaving her husband with three children, and was buried at the Powązki Catholic Cemetery in Warsaw. Many years later, the chronicler of the Warsaw theatre Władysław Krogulski observed that ‘Palińska […] with her inborn great talent and extreme temperament achieved the acme [of theatrical art], but her contemporaries did not realize this and thus she joined the group of … those who are underrated’. Even now, in fact, she is more remembered as a defeated rival of Modjeska rather than the greatest heroine of the Warsaw stage in the 1850s and 1860s, even less as one of the most significant Polish actresses of Jewish extraction in the 19th century.
The record of her baptism in St John’s Church in Warsaw, 1844, no 144.
A biographical entry in Polskim Słowniku Biograficznym, vol. 25, 1980.
Dzieje teatru polskiego, vol. 3, Teatr polski od 1863 r. do schyłku XIX wieku, ed. T. Sivert, Warszawa 1982. W. Krogulski, Notatki starego aktora, Kraków 2015