Esther van Rijk was one of 14 children born to an impoverished Orthodox Jewish family in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. She developed a passion for the theater in childhood. Although her parents tried to discourage it, she began acting in amateur theatricals and made her debut on the professional stage in 1873. In 1881, she married Henri de Boer, a musician, with whom she had a daughter, and became known as Esther de Boer-van Rijk. That same year, she moved to Amsterdam, having been accepted into the Nederlandsche Toneelvereeniging company. Its resident playwright, Herman Heijermans, gave her leading roles in many of his plays, some of which she reprised in film versions, and she became the country's most popular actress. In 1928, she was awarded the Order of Orange-Nassau. She published her autobiography, Ik kijk terug (I Look Back) in 1934. In the 1930s, she established her own theater companies that bore her name. She gave benefits performances for Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany before her death at age 84. Her daughter Sophie de Vries-de Boer also became an actress and later died at Auschwitz.