Bontsche Schweig: the Virtues and Hazards of Suffering in Silence

The story of Bontsche Schweig stands out like a bad dream from the array of Jewish stories to which I was exposed as a child. Partly, I can thank my father for this. He was a patient, scholarly man who read me a range of folk tales from a wide cultural spectrum, and the story of Bontsche was one of his favourites. Accordingly, I absorbed it as a morality tale which advocated the virtues of suffering in silence, no matter what dreadful deeds or circumstances might be inflicted on you.

Bontsche Schweig (Bontsche the Silent) by Isaac Loeb Peretz, is the bitter-sweet story of a man who, from birth to death, suffers nothing but cruelty and humiliation. Peretz paints the picture of his suffering in harrowing detail: Bontsche is born in poverty and dies in poverty. As a child he suffers abuse and neglect. As a labourer he works under intolerable conditions, experiences exploitation until he is too weak to work and is then thrown onto the scrap heap to die miserably, untended, unloved and alone. Throughout this terrible ordeal he remains silent. He never cries out, never protests, never pleads his case, never calls for help. Even his burial is a cursory affair and his grave is unmarked by a tombstone.

However, (and this is a really big ‘however’), in the second half of the story, Bontsche is elevated into a dazzling paradise when he enters the realms of the hereafter. Word has spread among the angels that Bontsche Schweig is on his way. There is a blast of the great Messianic Shofar and he is greeted at the gate by ‘our father’ Abraham who smiles sweetly and extends his arm to receive him. ‘God himself knew that Bontsche Schweig was coming,’ says Peretz. Cloaked in splendour, he is ushered into the heavenly courthouse where he is seated in a golden armchair, amazed and bewildered by the scene that greets him. He cannot believe that all this fuss is about him.

The advocate’s case is brief. He outlines the various tragic events in Bontsche’s life on earth, punctuating his account of each episode with the solemn refrain that ‘he kept silent all the way’. Then it is the turn of the prosecutor. He begins his case ‘in a voice biting and acid as vinegar’ but then breaks off, tries again to utter his indictment and falters again. He has no case and Bontsche is admitted to the heavenly chamber in a blaze of glory.

The story ends on an ironic note, impelling the sensitive reader to fight back the tears. The Lord asks Bontsche to name his reward and tells him that whatever he desires will be granted. Bontsche is incredulous but eventually manages, in a small, shy voice, to come up with his request: he would like a warm roll with a portion of butter every day for his breakfast. The angels smile and the prosecutor laughs.

Why has this story continued to haunt me? After all, there were many other stories – the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm, for example – packed with scary and grotesque images and deeds of horrible violence, but most of these have remained securely tucked away in the compartment of my mind reserved for fantasy.

The answer, I suspect, lies in my relationship with my father. This was a loving one, rooted mostly in my father’s efforts to inculcate in me an appreciation of our literary heritage and a facilitation of my artistic skills. Unfortunately, I was a mischievous and irritable little scamp and I sometimes rebelled against his critical and reserved nature. I chafed under the constraints of study and often looked for ways of expressing my mischievous streak, which inevitably incurred his disapproval. He showed this by ignoring me, lapsing into a prolonged and total silence. My efforts to break this silence got nowhere and the stalemate could go on for days, even weeks – an interminable period in the mind of a child. Eventually I would become sulkily resigned and then, after a while, the clouds would disperse and normal service would be resumed.

Silence became a negative instrument of communication in my mind, a punitive, withholding, guilt inducing phenomenon. Only after I began to practice psychotherapy did I discover the multifaceted nature of silence. I learnt that in the right context it could be both empathic and reflective. But I also knew intuitively that where children were concerned the silence of adults would be more likely to induce anxiety than confidence. As a learning experience, it delivers the wrong message.

Bontsche Schweig is a tale loaded with ambiguity. The virtues of accepting one’s lot without protest are offset by the natural urge to survive. One has to fight against the forces bearing down on one. Wrongs must be righted, and in such circumstances strength through words is a virtue, while silence, whether out of fear or meekness, is a disability. The prospect of being rewarded in the world to come affords no solace to rational-minded folk. Like many stories of that genre, the story of Bontsche Schweig, moving and powerful though it is, is simply a fairy tale.

About the Author
I was born in South Africa in 1940 and emigrated to the U.K. in 1970 after qualifying in medicine. I held a post as Consultant Psychiatrist in London until my retirement in 2013. I am the author of two books: one on group analytic psychotherapy, one on the psychology of the French Revolution. I have written many articles on group psychology published in peer-reviewed journals. From 1979 to 1985 I was editor of the journal ‘Group Analysis’; I have contributed short pieces to psychology newsletters over the years.
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