Yiddish writer Isaac Leib Peretz’s short story, “Bontshe Shvayg,” generally translated as “Bontshe the Silent,” was first published in 1894. It is one of the most widely known, anthologized, and translated Yiddish stories. Bontshe is a poor man who never complains, no matter what pains the situation gives him. And there are many. It is my fifth favorite book. It taught me much.

Bontshe suffers endless injury, humiliation, and injustice, yet he never complains and never raises his voice against God or man. On earth, his death makes no impression. The death of a horse would have caused more excitement. He lived and died in silence.

But in the other world, Bontshe’s death caused excitement. When he entered, the Messiah’s horn was blown. He was summoned before God. Angels flapped their wings and brought him a golden chair to sit on and a golden crown to place on his head. Cherubs sang his praise. Father Abraham greeted him.

To all of this, Bontshe remained silent.

He feared that all would be whisked away if he opened his eyes. Surely there is a mistake. They don’t mean me.

Then, the trial began. The Chief Judge warned the defense attorney to proceed quickly because the case outcome was assured.

The facts were presented. “When Bontshe was circumcised at age eight days, the circumcision was bungled, and no one could staunch the bleeding. At age thirteen, his mother died, and his stepmother mistreated him. She scrimped on his food. She beat him and dressed him in rags. His father was a drunk and abused him. One day, he tossed him from his house. He had no friends or any school. But through it all, he never complained. He left the town of his birth hungry. He worked as a porter carrying heavy loads. But his work was often unpaid.

“Once, a coach carrying a rich man ran wild. The driver fell from the coach and died. Bontshe stopped the horses. The rich man made him his coachman, found him a wife, arranged a wedding, and thoughtfully provided him with a baby boy.

“Bontshe did not complain. He kept silent.

“He was silent when his child’s father went bankrupt and never paid him a cent, when his wife ran off with another man leaving him with the infant. Fifteen years later, when the boy was strong, he threw Bontshe into the street, as his father had done. Bontshe was silent then too.

“He was silent in the hospital when the doctor refused to treat his pain because Bontshe could not pay. He was quiet when the nurses failed to change his sheets and when he died. Not one word against God. Not one word against man.”

With this recital, the defense rested.

When the prosecutor rose to present his case, he was brief. He stammered, “Bontshe kept silent. I will do the same.”

Then Bontshe heard the sweetest voice. It was the voice of the Chief Judge. “Bontshe, my child, you always suffered in silence, and your silence was never rewarded. Now, you will be rewarded. You can have whatever you want. It is yours. All you want is yours.”

“Truly? Anything?” Bontshe asked.

“Yes, anything,” the judge responded. “Ask for anything you want. You can choose anything you like.”

“Truly?” Bontshe asked again.

“Truly! Truly! Truly!” Yelled multiple angelic voices.

“Well, then,” smiled Bontshe, “what I’d like most of all is a warm roll with fresh butter every morning,”

The judges and angels hung their heads in shame. The prosecutor laughed.

 

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I understand that Peretz addresses why misery and other evils occur. He offers no solution. Even this brilliant thinker could not unravel the problem. But he highlights the need for us to know that people are suffering and need our help.

Different readers of this masterpiece saw other closely related morals in this tale. Some stress that the story is set in Czarist times and focuses on the conditions of this era. Bontshe represents an oppressed group that remains silent despite the government’s cruelty. Even when they have an opportunity to resist, they foolishly suffer passively. The tale reflects disempowerment, persecution, and humility.

Others focus on the Jewish concept of menschlikhkeit, where Jews are encouraged to act civilly, gently, and decently. They see Peretz warning his reader’s decency can lead to extreme passivity, and the results can be catastrophically self-destructive.  They highlight that this occurred in the Holocaust some forty years after Peretz died.

Similarly, still others see the parable criticizing Jewish passivity in the face of antisemitism.