“[W]hat I would like, Your Excellency, is to have, every morning for breakfast, a hot roll with fresh butter.”
This is the request of Bontsha Szweig – Bontsha the Silent – before the Heavenly Court in I.L. Peretz’s retelling of this Yiddish folktale. The request for a hot roll with butter is in response to the offer of a heavenly reward beyond any human’s dream: “Whatever you want! Everything is yours,” the Judge declares.
How did Bontsha Szweig come to be worthy of such a reward? “In silence he was born, in silence he lived, in silence he died – and in an even vaster silence he was put into the ground.” He was, Peretz tells us, “more tormented than Job.”
He was silent when his father threw him out of the house as a child; he was silent when he suffered terrible hunger; he was silent when people spat on him as he worked as a porter; he was silent when his wife ran off leaving him with an infant; he was silent when the child grew up and ran away from him; he was silent.
Upon his arrival in Paradise, Bontsha is greeted by father Abraham himself and angels deliver a golden throne upon which he shall sit and a golden, jeweled crown for his head. Seeing the welcome he received, Bontsha was again silent. He was terrified.
The defending angel recounts the many horrible things that happened to Bontsha and how through it all “[h]e never . . . complained, not against G-d, not against man; his eye never grew red with hatred, never raised a protest against heaven.”
The prosecuting attorney steps up to make the case against Bontsha, but all he can say is: “Gentlemen, he was always silent – and now I too will be silent.”
Thus, the Judge rules that Bontsha may have any reward that Paradise can provide.
His request of a hot roll and butter is met by silence and the Judge and the angels “bend their heads in shame at this unending meekness they have created on earth.”
The story comes to an end as the silence is “shattered. The prosecutor laughs aloud, a bitter laugh.”
Bontsha Szweig haunts the Jewish people. Is he a laudable character – a lamed vavnik (one of the 36 hidden righteous of the world) who deserve the highest reward? Or is he the weak Jew, never standing up for himself, who will never change the world, even though he has infinite potential to do so?
This Yiddish folk tale, so expertly retold by Peretz, speaks to these countervailing stereotypes and to the schizophrenic character of the Jew through the ages.
I have encountered Bontsha in my research. One encounter I shared with you in my blog post of July 11, 2016. It is the story of Fievel Goldfarb who was a student of Esther’s father in Stoczeck. Here is an excerpt from the Blog post:
“Fievel was from a poor family and he could not afford to buy what Chana [the Baker] sold. He was friends with Chana’s son – Moishele – he called him Moynik. One day, they were together and Moynik was eating a roll with butter. Fievel looked longingly at the roll – he had never in his life had a roll with butter. Moynik had his fill of the roll and offered the rest to Fievel. Fievel’s father taught him never to take charity. So, he turned down the offer. Moynik threw the remainder of the roll over the fence. Quickly, Fievel said he had to go home. They parted and Fievel ran to the other side of the fence to retrieve the precious roll. It was gone – most likely eaten by a dog. ‘I will never forget that roll,’ Fievel lamented 77 years later, as he sat in his home in Marboro, New Jersey.”
Two more references to Bontsha emerged from the Yizkor Book of the Jewish Community of Ostrow Mazowiecka that I recently read. This Yizkor book contains pieces written by many survivors, originally from Ostrow Mazowiecka.
The first is from a piece written by Chana Holcman, translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein. She tells of her suffering and survival in the concentration camps:
“I thought: ‘how will all this end?’ how long can one work expending all one’s strength in such difficult inhuman conditions, knowing death could be just around the corner. At every opportunity our torturers did not forget to assure us: ‘so, tomorrow you also might come to the crematorium’. I knew that yes, one could go any day up the chimney. But before, I have two desires. The first and most important is to see my only son alive. I want to badly to hold him tight, to kiss him despite how big he is and to tell him how much I love, how much my heart yearned and ached for him. And I have one more desire. Once, I would like to eat my fill and savour the taste of being sated. It is perhaps not nice to confess this, but it is the sad truth. Mostly, my thoughts are occupied dreaming of a little camp-soup, a bit of camp bread – enough to satisfy my hunger. In truth, there were times when there was nothing I could think of other than eating. Several times I took comfort in Peretz’s ‘Boncze Szweig’. I thought to myself, what if Boncze, who went to heaven as one of the ‘Lamed Vavniks’ had dreamed all day about a roll with butter? Even when he was borne to eternity and when stood before G-d’s judgment he was asked ’Boncze, tell us what you desire, what you want, and it will instantly be granted’. Instead of a resounding scream, ‘I want the Jewish people to be redeemed’ and perhaps we would be redeemed, he had answered ‘I want a roll with butter.’ Still the simple truth is that the sword of hunger is mightier than the sword of death.”
The second piece is title: Szepsel Wasertreger, by Hana Levitt and translated by Judie Ostroff Goldstein:
“One of the figures in Ostrowa, a sort of Lamed Vavnik or ‘Boncze Szwaijg’ was our neighbor in the shtetl, Szepsel Wasertreger (Water Carrier). He was a small, skinny Jew with red cheeks, sparkling blue eyes and quiet as a mouse.
He carried buckets of water hanging from a sort of yoke made of poles that had taken root on his meager shoulders. Day in and day out, in the morning and evening, in the heat and cold Szepsel Wastertreger quietly carried his buckets of water and silently entered the kitchen of the housewives, saying nothing and keeping his eyes down like a bashful girl. He waited a minute – two – if people paid a couple of groschen [pennies], that was good; some said come back tomorrow or the day after – that was still good; people forgot to pay for if a week- that was also good.
The pump at luica Komorrow was always busy. Wives, young girls, students and even old Jews used to pump water into one or two pails. Szepsel would quietly wait and wait until they were all done. Actually, he would murmur prayers until the pump was free. The hansom cabs, Jewish and Polish, would use the pump to get a drink for the horses. People would grab buckets not caring who they belonged to – one grabs a bucket near Szepsel, a second, and Szepsel says nothing.
Szepses Wasertreger and his wife lived in a small house in our courtyard. His wife, a very small woman with a hump on her back and a pock marked face, was never content with what he earned and would nag him. Szepsel did not answer her and carried water until mincha. After praying mincha- ma’ariv he waited for Shabbes.
On Shabbes Szepsel put on a dark splendid kapote and wore a fancy round hat on his head. His yellow beard shone and his eyes sparkled with joy.
After long years of not having children, Szepsel’s wife gave him a beautiful child who looked exactly like Szepsel – a girl. Szepsel Wasertreger was in seventh heaven. G-d had blessed him with a child. His wife stopped nagging him. Her relatives in America were sending her dollars and it did not bother her that Szepsel was lax in collecting for the water he carried.
Szepsel Wasertreger and his wife did not enjoy their happiness for very long. When the Germans entered Ostrowa, everyone ran with his wife and children. The neighbours [sic] did not know if Szepsel and his wife and beautiful child were able to escape the German bullets.
If he is alive, wish him long years. If he is among those killed, make sure there is a place for him in the Garden of Eden.”
Bonctsha lives on.
 I. L. Peretz (Isaac Leib) lived 1852 – 1915. He was born in Zamosc.
 Gordon, Aba and Gelbart, M. ed. Memorial Book of The Jewish Community of Ostrow Mazowiecka. New York. JewishGen, Inc. 2013 at pp. 588-89.
 Id. at 433.