I.L. Peretz was a Polish-Jewish writer considered to be the “great awakener of Yiddish-speaking Jewry.” What he was awakening can best be seen in a short story he titled Bontsha the Silent.
Peretz describes Bontsha as someone who endures unimaginable suffering throughout his life, and yet, he never protests. He is shown to be anonymity incarnate. He has no voice, no presence, and no impact on anyone. When he dies, no one remembers him.
Even his one good deed, saving the life of a rich nobleman, ends in disaster. He is initially rewarded, but circumstances change and everyone involved in the event abandons poor Bontsha. No one shows him the slightest kindness or consideration.
His arrival in Paradise, however, is described as an “event.” Abraham and the angels personally welcome him. Trumpet blasts accompany him. He has a golden throne to sit upon, and a golden crown is placed on his head. The contrast between the world he left and Paradise is staggering.
Though every arrival in Paradise must be preceded by a final judgment, in Bontsha’s case the trial is a mere formality. The defending angel portrays Bontsha’s silence as a great virtue and compares him to Job. Even the prosecuting angel proclaims that Bontsha “was always silent – and now I, too, will be silent.” In Paradise as in the world he left, Bontsha is silent and humble, ashamed of all the attention.
If the story ended there, it would be easy to conclude that Peretz’s tale constitutes a condemnation of a cruel, heartless society in which compassion for a man like Bontsha is non-existent, one more confirmation of Thomas Hobbes’ description of life as nasty, brutish and short. But the story does not end there.
Instead of continuing with the extravagant praise, the judge suddenly admonishes Bontsha: “You never understood that you need not have been silent, that you could have cried out and that your outcries would have brought down the world itself and ended it. You never understood your sleeping strength.” The story is as much about Bontsha’s complicity as it is about social justice. The power of the victim is as important, the judge is saying, as any other factor in social progress.
The world is imperfect and needs repair. Only the Bontshas of the world can accomplish this. The Bontshas are needed, not to be silent, but to act. The story is ultimately a protest against a broken world, and also against those who remain silent and accept injustice.
Bontsha the Silent ends with yet another shocking twist. Bontsha is offered absolutely anything his heart desires, with no limits. To the stunned amazement of all, he requests only “a hot roll with fresh butter” every morning. Now, it is the angels and the judge’s turn to fall silent, a silence “more terrible than Bontsha’s has ever been,” and they bend their heads “in shame at this unending meekness they have created on earth.” The silence is shattered only with the judge’s “bitter laugh.”
At first, the reader is in awe of Bontsha’s humility in the face of suffering. After the judge’s admonishment, Peretz changes the reader’s perspective and creates a critique of silence. The final sequence concludes with even those in Paradise shocked by what they have wrought. Bontsha never understood that crying out against injustice would have made a difference, and that suffering in silence is not a response to a broken world.
Peretz is the real judge in the final analysis. Perhaps it was he, a secular Jew, who was condemning those who preached submission when they should have encouraged action in a world that is most decidedly not Paradise, one in desperate need of conviction and moral courage.
Job’s submission was heralded as the model for the religious consciousness. Peretz offered a contrary notion. In his view, Paradise itself was shamed by “this unending meekness they had created on this earth.” A bitter laugh, indeed.
Paul Socken is distinguished professor emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies program at the University of Waterloo.